Junior Grete Wilt enjoyed going to house parties last year, but this January, after returning from her semester abroad in Kenya, she hyperventilated the first time she walked into the Twomp.
“This was the first time I’ve been abroad, so reentering was a little slower for me. If you’ve been somewhere that doesn’t have Internet really, or good phone service, you’re going to be more removed from CC,” Wilt said. “Just purely walking into Rastall, feeling like I know no one and after what I witnessed in Kenya, it’s hard for me sometimes to see people throwing food away. Like lettuce, I didn’t see lettuce for four months.”
With more than 100 students returning this semester from travel abroad programs during the fall, some students on campus are what junior Allegra Waterman-Snow called, “off-balance.”
“I have such high ups because I’m seeing my friends, I’m back home, and it’s so exciting talking to people and hearing their stories” said Waterman-Snow, who recently returned from a semester abroad program in Ecuador. “Then, I have such lows because suddenly I crash. I remember being abroad; I remember where I was. I get so depressed, and then I get so happy being back at CC.”
Both Wilt and Waterman-Snow agree that going to places that exhibit excess and extremely “American” customs can be overwhelming and trigger waves of culture shock, like big grocery stores and parties.
Culture shock is a very real challenge for people when moving between countries around the world. Shifting customs and languages can be exhausting, and feeling connected to others is often difficult when you don’t share experiences.
“In general, culture shock is just a disorientation from the familiar. When a lot of students study abroad they expect they’re going to have culture shock, because they’re planning on it being different,” said Heather Browne, Colorado College’s Coordinator for Off-Campus Study. “But what a lot of students don’t realize [is] that coming back can be just as hard, if not harder, because it’s unpredictable. They look the same, but a lot of things inside have changed—perspectives have been challenged, new interests may have developed, new language capacities, a lot of transformational learning happening on the inside.
Junior Edward Ruiz spent his fall semester in Sweden, and even though European culture is similar in many ways to that of the United States, Ruiz is still facing the challenge of culture shock, more philosophically than physically. “Sweden is a very fortunate country with a very high standard of living. As cliché as it sounds, it was life changing but it’s shocking to come from a culture that is very relationship- and family-oriented, to come back to CC with the relationship ‘spectrum’,” he said.
“Nothing is black and white, there is no sense of loyalty or sense of self. Here they make us question so much of what we believe in that we don’t know where we fall. And that gets translated to our relationships and our interactions,” Ruiz added.
After a semester in Jordan, junior Tim Bruns is relieved to be home. “Coming home was like a break after a really intense, tiring exercise,” he said. “I was in a third-world country and there are just some things that are just so convenient about the U.S.” Bruns has spent a large portion of his life living abroad—in Japan, Norway, and Canada—and admitteds he can’t imagine how it feels to return to a life-long home.
While living in the Middle East, Bruns’ passion for politics grew, leaving him with a well-informed and opinionated outlook. “It feels awesome to be back, but it’s been particularly stressful coming back to a place where the vast majority of Americans are so uninformed; I was right in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” says Bruns said. “It’s impossible to answer their questions or explain to them how it was. It has to be a combination of anecdotes and pictures.”
For students who stayed on campus this semester, the return of friends and classmates may also prove difficult and overwhelming. “I think people feel rude if they don’t ask you about your semester, because they want to acknowledge that you were away. It’s an awkward position for both parties, especially if you’re not great friends. They haven’t seen you since last year, a lot has happened,” Waterman-Snow said. “You want to make people understand, then at the same time you want to keep it to yourself.”
Wilt related, saying “It’s hard when someone asks, ‘How was Kenya?’ Do you want to give you ‘Great!’, do you want me to give you a few highlights, or do you want me to sit down and cry to you? Because I can do all three.”
When it comes down to it, the reentry process and dealing with culture shock is a very personal experience and is different for everyone. Both Wilt and Waterman-Snow agreed that connecting with friends who were also abroad last semester is easier, while Bruns is confident that his best friends understand his experience, even though they were on campus.
“And it can be very difficult when students come back, because people don’t see that, and they don’t necessarily know how to engage you in meaningful conversations,” Browne said. “Sometimes students can struggle with coming back and feeling different on the inside, being a different person and also not having a capacity to always talk about that.”
Ruiz had a profoundly negative experience upon return. “Its amazing how distance can really ruin a relationship. It’s interesting when you want to come back to your rock, and they’re not there. I think it’s because I changed so much,” he said.
As the first week back to class comes to a close, many recently returned juniors are getting back into their routines and lives on campus. “Slowly, I’m going better. Day by day,” Wilt said. “I think this semester will be great and I’m definitely going to meet new people because so many of my friends are going abroad in the spring. Junior year is such a transitional year at CC; I think junior year is about getting out of your comfort zone and changing the way you saw the world. That’s what happened to me.”
“CC feels so familiar, going out and having fun is the same. Just because I’ve had this experience, doesn’t mean I can’t relate to people,” Bruns said. “My time in Jordan undoubtedly changed my life, but it doesn’t mean I can’t come back here and hang out and drink with my friends. It doesn’t pervade my life.”