Coming Home: Sustaining the

Experiences of Studying Abroad

Leah Howell

As the definition of education broadens beyond classroom learning to more experiential models, studying abroad during college is gaining credibility as a valuable part of the educational process. This opportunity provides a rich intellectual experience, both in and out of the classroom. Many students return to their college or university feeling disconnected and finding it difficult to articulate their experiences. This article explores students’ development abroad and the ways higher education administrators can enhance these skills once students return.

Overseas study is booming. The number of American college students spending at least a semester abroad almost doubled from 1986 to 1996 (Steen, 1998). Most, but certainly not all, students who spend time outside their countries take the experience seriously. Most, but certainly not all, say it is a life-changing adventure. This phenomenon is a major development in American education at a time of sharply increased global awareness. It is having a profound impact both on the participants and the campuses to which they return.

Many institutions of higher education pour resources into preparing students to make the transition abroad. Too few, unfortunately, help students return to campus in ways that build on their newly roused curiosity, that draw on acquired knowledge and fresh attitudes. Many students find returning home to be a more difficult adjustment than learning to thrive in a richly different culture. Reentry is a challenge to the student and to the institution.

At the end of each semester, an exciting ritual occurs. As U.S. college students are winding down and anticipating a break full of good food and lots of sleep, many of their classmates are furiously pulling out maps, listening to language tapes, packing up their belongings and participating in orientations as they prepare to travel overseas. In the past decade alone, the number of students studying abroad has risen from 48,483 in 1986 to 89,242 in 1996 (Steen, 1998). Traditionally, students traveled overseas to study humanities and foreign languages. Today, the subject matter is as diverse as the reasons to study abroad: only 35% are enrolled in humanities courses; 14% now take business classes.

Studying abroad provides students a critical intellectual experience, both academically and non-academically (Kauffmann, Martin, Weaver, & Weaver, 1992). Students’ exposure to different ways of approaching subject matter in the classroom and experiences outside of school forces them to confront their own perspectives and assumptions. In addition, living in a foreign country challenges students to be flexible and respond to different cultural mores. Most students claim that they "increased their self-confidence" (Gmelch, 1997, p. 6) while abroad. In order for students to build on the skills developed overseas, it is crucial for them to recognize these new abilities and apply them to their lives once home (Woody, 1995).

Too often, students go overseas and experience a whirlwind adventure that changes their perspectives on the world and school, only to be expected to return to life as before, unchanged. Without time to reflect on their semester or year abroad, students experience difficulty coming back to college. The transition is much easier when their home institutions provide support by preparing students for the change, providing resources to help them make sense of their experiences and by offering academic courses related to international study (Bruce, 1997; Gaw, 1995; Kauffmann et al., 1992; Woody, 1995).

Most studies report that returning home is often a more trying adjustment than going abroad (Rohrlich & Martin, 1991; Rogers & Ward, 1993; Uehara, 1986; Woody, 1995). Before studying abroad, students participate in an intensive orientation program that addresses culture shock. When returning home, however, very few students spend time preparing for their reentry. Most students assume they will slip back into their old lives with little trouble. They are, after all, coming home.

"The overseas experience [however] ‘disturbs the reality’ of the students, and when they return home there is no structure in which to process the experience" (Woody, 1995, p. 6). Students often do not realize how much they change as a result of their semester or year abroad. This "reverse culture shock" occurs because students do not anticipate any trouble with readjustment (Rohrlich & Martin, 1991; Uehara, 1986; Woody, 1995). When they return to college, many students express frustration at how little has changed. They feel more independent and worldly than their classmates. They also experience difficulty in "finding ways to incorporate their international experiences into their home culture" (Woody, 1995, p.5).

Kauffmann et al. (1992) discussed in their book, Students Abroad, Strangers at Home, that people studying overseas develop intellectually, gain a broader perspective globally, and mature personally. This three-pronged growth is contingent on how well the student "processes" the whole experience. To explore the ways studying abroad affects individual development, this article will discuss Kauffmann et al.’s research. In each section that follows—intellectual development, international perspective, and personal development—this article will illustrate the problems students have coping with these changes upon their return. In addition, it will suggest ways to address some of these issues.

Intellectual Development

The first goal in most study abroad programs is to expand the student intellectually. Programs range from formal classrooms and independent studies to internship programs. Students are exposed to very different methods and teaching styles than those experienced in the United States. Kauffmann et al. (1992) identified three major areas of intellectual development: gaining competency in a language, broadening the scope of one's major, and "increasing knowledge in general studies" (p. 2).

Competency in Language

As more colleges have required a second language for graduation, interest in travel to non-English speaking countries has increased (Kauffmann et al., 1992; Watson, 1997). Students immersed in the language are forced to communicate every time they venture out to the store or post office. Students have even more opportunity for language acquisition when living with host families. The constant practice and reinforcement allows them to gain confidence and competence in their language ability. It is much more personal and immediate than a language lab. By the time students return to America, they show a marked increase in their language proficiency (Kauffmann et al; Watson).

New Perspective on Major

Most international universities encourage self-directed, independent work, which is a departure from the more guided American approach to classwork (e.g., homework, attendance). Often the final exam is the only real way professors assess their students’ academic performance. Without homework assignments and periodic tests, students are trusted to do the necessary exercises. They take responsibility for reading assigned texts and learn to manage their time. For science majors, lab and research procedures are conducted in less controlled settings. One student at St. Michael’s College in Vermont remarked, "I learned that there are different ways to accumulate data in psychology. At St. Mike’s, we are required to participate in labs several times a week. In New Zealand, it is up to us to collect samples. It really opened my eyes to different perspectives in research" (O. Tangen, personal communication, November 7, 1997). Similarly, in other disciplines, teaching styles differ from most methods in the United States. This exposure to new techniques can expand students’ scope and may help illuminate the range of career possibilities (Gaw, 1995; Kauffmann et al., 1992).

Increasing Overall Academic Knowledge

Students who travel overseas to study do so in order to enjoy a different environment and to "experienc[e] the world" (Watson, 1997, p. 51). When they return home, they have the potential to take the information they absorbed—history, politics, economics, culture—and apply it to the books they read and the seminars they attend. This open-ness to new perspectives enhances their learning in the academic setting. Learning and education expand. They are less likely to be concerned with grades, and more interested in developing their own opinions than in memorizing facts. This intellectual growth occurs both in the classroom and out. In fact, many students felt they learned more from their daily casual interactions than in formal academic classes (Kauffmann et al.).

Academic Problems Students Face During Reentry

There is "an identifiable expansion in interest in international affairs as a result of study abroad. However, some students feel that this is not reinforced when they return, partly due to the apathy on the part of their peers" (Kauffmann, et al., 1992). After the initial "how was your trip?" most people are uninterested in hearing about the experience of returnees, no matter how eager returnees are to share their insights and adventures.

Many professors similarly fail to tap into the returnees’ new knowledge base and more independent study habits. The hands-on classes, with quizzes and homework, are oppressive and elementary to many students. With their curiosity about the world, returnees want to explore subjects more deeply. Kauffmann et al. (1992) report that "many feel that their institutions do not recognize the significance of their overseas experience and even punish them for this deviation from their academic career" (p. 157). Very few colleges offer a curriculum that supports the study abroad experience. The onus is on the returning students to reintegrate into college life.

How Institutions Can Build On Students’ Intellectual Growth

The intellectual growth that accompanies a study abroad experience can wither if ignored by colleges and universities. Only a few institutions offer a full-credit independent study planned before the student travels abroad. These courses often include a paper written during the study abroad experience followed by a semester-long research project upon return. Classes such as these allow students to reflect on their newly gained personal and academic knowledge. Journals are often required as a way for students to interpret their experiences. They also illustrate some limitations and why structured follow-up is so important.

Anthropology Professor George Gmelch, reflecting on his experiences with students abroad in Austria, described that intellectual development overseas was difficult without a formal class-like setting in which to process what they were learning. "I was startled at the shallowness of the students’ engagement with the people and places they visited. There was little sign they were learning much about any European culture, and their observations seemed mostly naive and simplistic" (1997, p. 5). In order to avoid this "shallowness," colleges should consider offering courses to help students incorporate what they have learned, thus providing a meaningful intellectual experience. A service-learning model, where students read texts and write reflective papers while performing community service, could be adapted to fit study abroad. Offering more seminar-style classes is one way for institutions to address both the independence acquired overseas as well as the returnees’ need to reflect on the experience.

International Perspective

By living and studying in another culture, students increase their understanding of global issues. This international awareness challenges students to examine critically their own system of government (Kauffmann et al., 1992; Martin, 1987; Uehara, 1986). At the same time, students also expand their interest and knowledge of other nations. A student who studied in England expressed her change, "Before I lived in Bristol, I never really had any interest in other countries. While there, I began listening to the news and got a new awareness about how America is viewed. I ask the question now all the time ‘why are we [America] doing that policy?’ I have new perspectives and I’m getting mad at issues now" (K. Svab, personal communication, November 5, 1997). As colleges and universities around the country recognize that teaching diversity is essential to give students the skills to participate fully in society, faculty and administrators continue to develop ways to broaden their students’ perspectives. Programs such as diversity training and required courses in non-Western thought seek to cultivate an appreciation for different ways of accomplishing a goal. Studying abroad enhances students’ abilities to see beyond themselves and broaden their perceptions of the world. Kauffmann et al. and Uehara both researched how studying abroad changed students' perspective about their host country and the United States.

Perspective on the Host Country

As students immerse themselves in another country, their understanding of politics, economics, and culture increases (Kauffmann et al., 1992; Woody, 1995). This is especially true if they have taken courses about the country, either at home or during their study. American students often meet foreign students who know far more about the United States than they do. This usually motivates them to do research about the U.S., as well as to read more about their host country. For example, a St. Michael’s College student recalled, "When I was in New Zealand, everyone was mad about some nuclear ships that we [United States] sent through their waters. They kept asking me my opinion and I had to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. I did some quick research, though, and found out what I could so I would not look like such an idiot" (O. Tangen, personal communication, November 7, 1997).

Interactions like these push students to expand their worldview. Students who study abroad find they return home more interested in learning about other countries (Kauffmann 1992; Uehara, 1986). The experience of living in a foreign country enhances their connection to the world community. This "connection" is increasingly important as modern media and technology make the world more accessible. Global understanding also increases appreciation for the diversity of their own country.

Problems During Reentry

Viewing the United States from a new perspective allows students to see their country from a more complex point of view. For many, this is the first time they have heard real critiques of their government. Critical analysis of the United States can lead some students to question many aspects of American policy. One obstacle returnees face is how to come to terms with the "ugly" side of the United States—the domineering, arrogant and inflexible side that other cultures contest. Many of those who study in countries philosophically, economically, and culturally different from the United States (especially where U.S. policies are felt to affect that country adversely) have trouble integrating the positives from both countries into their new world view (Storti, 1997).

How Institutions Can Reinforce Students’ Expanded International Awareness

Higher education institutions need to explore ways to encourage students’ heightened international awareness. Practically speaking, international experience is valuable in today’s global job market, as companies seek employees with international sensibility. As our world becomes more accessible via the Internet, colleges and universities must accept the challenge to help students grasp the ways studying abroad prepares them to participate in this diverse society. Career centers, in particular, can be useful in helping students identify marketable skills and translating experiences onto a resume and cover letter. The alumni office is another resource. It can provide a list of alumni who work in other countries or whose companies have partnerships abroad. By seeing the types of jobs available overseas, students can begin to explore ways they too can translate the experience of studying abroad into a tangible career choice.

Personal Development

"Coming to Europe was a huge experience for me, bigger than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ll never be the same because of it" (Gmelch, 1997, p. 6). Statements expressing how studying abroad changed their lives are common among returned students. These changes spark profound personal development in terms of independence, self-esteem, and confidence.

Students living abroad must adapt to a foreign culture, a new language (or accent), and different expectations at school without their old support network. The decisions students make on their own increase their feeling of accomplishment and independence (Kauffmann et al. 1992; Martin, 1986). These changes in responsibility help young people develop a strong self-awareness, less dependent on family and friends. Chickering & Reisser (1993) explain that "a key developmental step for students is learning to function with relative self-sufficiency, to take responsibility for pursuing self-chosen goals, and to be less bound by others’ opinions" ( p. 47). They maintain that "students who...take advantage of study abroad programs may blossom more rapidly" ( p.140). Students can, in the words of many who study abroad, "reinvent" themselves overseas.

As students’ perceptions of politics and global issues shift during their time abroad, so do their relationships with others. "The sojourner reenters the social environment of friends and family with a potentially changed ‘meaning structure’ and newly internalized rules of interaction" (Martin, 1986, p. 4). Students must figure out how to explain their experiences and changes to their loved ones. Often this is much more difficult than imagined. Researchers look at two types of relationships affected by studying abroad: parent and peer (Kauffmann et al., 1992; Martin, 1986; Uehara, 1986; Woody, 1995).

Parents’ Reactions

After an initial adjustment period where parents absorb the changes in their child, the reaction to them is usually positive (Martin, 1986; Uehara, 1986). Because parents expect their children to change and grow, the new independence seems natural (Martin). In fact, many parents seem pleased their child is more responsible and mature. One student explained, "I didn’t have to downplay my experiences with my parents. They were excited for me to have had such adventures. My dad was especially happy that I managed to travel on such a tight budget" (K. Svab, personal communication, November 5, 1997).

Friends’ Reactions

The reaction from peers, by contrast, is generally negative (Martin, 1986; Uehara, 1986). Uehara found that "returned students tended to be unable to gain the necessary support from those who had been important friends before they went abroad" (p. 418). It can be very disheartening to returnees (who feel like they have changed deeply) to see life at home is the same as before they went abroad. Uehara quotes one student, "When I came home, I expected everyone to have changed in the ways that I did. It’s shocking to find them doing the same things they did when I left.... I found us to be spoiled, isolated and uninterested in the world around us" (p. 415). Students excited to share their experiences find many of their friends annoyed by the constant references to adventures and travels abroad. The apathy and occasional hostility on the part of returnees’ peers often alienates them from each other. Martin explains, "for adolescents, relationships are less stable, more fluid, more variable than relationships with family, so they are inherently more susceptible to change" (p.18).

Returnees experience the most difficulty in their relationships with their partners (Martin, 1986; Woody, 1995). The partners often feel threatened by the changes, especially the new-found independence. As they try to relate to one another, they run into obstacles as one partner tries to restore the relationship to "the way it was before" (Woody, 1995). Martin, however, found that studying abroad enhances relationships with friends and partners if they ask questions about the experience, have also studied or lived abroad, or have actually shared part of the experience by traveling with the student abroad.

Values Developed Abroad

Students studying abroad are forced to examine the principles and morals they grew up with as they learn about new or opposing value systems. The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 31, 1997) explores the issue of homosexual students studying abroad. Some gay and lesbian students experience an openness towards sexual orientation that they had not encountered in the United States. They revel in the freedom to express themselves. These students go through a transition in their value system. The article warns "it is vital for gay [sic] students to understand how they may have changed by the time they come back to the United States" (Rubin, 1997, p. A53). "Study abroad offices should have a reentry program that includes ‘a discussion prompting these students to think about these changes’" (Rubin, p. A54). Similarly, a program should be in place that helps all students who undergo changes in their value systems to understand the culture that they left.

How Institutions Can Respond To Personal Development Issues

As noted earlier, relatively little energy is spent on helping students reintegrate themselves into the college campus. Many students experience difficulty in readjusting. Kevin Gaw’s (1995) research shows that a student with reverse culture shock will probably experience one or more of the following: "depression, alienation, isolation, loneliness, general anxiety, speech anxiety, friendship difficulties, shyness concerns, and feelings of inferiority" (p. 22). Though returned students experience these to varying degrees, universities and colleges must be prepared to address them. Some schools conduct reentry workshops that prompt students to process their experience abroad (Kauffmann et al., 1992; Raschio, 1987; Woody, 1995). Martin (1986) suggests "the way sojourners understand the changes in themselves and in the environment and deal with them is through interaction with others" (Martin, 1986, p. 15). The workshops provide a formal setting in which students begin to assess their experiences through interaction with other returnees.

Gaw (1995) urges counseling centers to develop programs for the returnees that address how they can "manage their reentry experiences differently and in many cases, more successfully" (p. 22). Support groups and peer counselors can help students understand that they are not the only ones experiencing difficulty in readjusting. St. Michael’s College created a program which forms partnerships between returnees and international students studying there. The returnee is involved in the international student orientation and is paired with one student for the year. "After having experienced the feeling of alienation in another culture, many students who have studied abroad try to help others adjust to their own culture" (Bruce, 1997 p. 80).


Studying abroad provides a potential for intellectual and personal growth. Newsweek recently reported that "study-abroad programs...increased in number by about a third between 1991 and 1996" (Watson, 1997, p. 52). As more students accept the challenge to learn overseas, colleges and universities must begin to address ways to enhance the experience. "It is the responsibility of...institutions to see that students are as prepared as possible to deal with...reentry" (Woody, 1995, p. 3). Administrators can no longer expect returnees to slip back into college life unnoticed. The institutions themselves, as Woody suggests, must change to provide the support necessary for students to integrate their experience into campus life.

Colleges and universities that offer academic courses and reentry programs directed at returnees will heighten their students’ experiences. These students can act as valuable political, cultural, and language resources for the school (Kauffmann et al., 1992). It is time for institutions to recognize what returned students have to offer their own campuses. In doing so, these institutions should make a concerted effort to prepare students as much for reentry as they have for leaving.


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Leah Howell graduated forem Davidson College in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in History. Before attending the University of Vermont, she worked at the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit, civic education organization that encourages citizen involvement through on-site learning. Leah is a second-year student in the HESA program and serves as Graduate Assistant in the Office of Judicial Affairs. Leah's own study abroad experience in India during college has contributed to her interest in experiential education.