Reverse Culture Shock, a Missing Piece of the Campus Puzzle

While our students may not be returning from abroad this fall, writes Luchen Li, they’re coming back to an unfamiliar place: their own campus.

July 14, 2021
 
 
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The pandemic has affected just about every aspect of college operation, but its impact on education abroad has been most palpable. When COVID-19 hit early in 2020, international travel halted and national borders closed, campuses emptied and study abroad programs were called off.

Now, as vaccines have become available and nations are increasingly preparing for reopening their borders, massive and voluminous international travels loom imminently. But even before then, while our students may not be returning from abroad, they’re coming back to an unfamiliar place -- their own campus.

COVID-19 has kept many, if not most, of our students off our campuses for more than a year. We must use this downtime to prepare responses to reverse culture shock -- the unsettled feeling many people experience when they return to their home culture after time spent in another, this time with fresh eyes.

Reverse culture shock has been, traditionally and too conveniently, regarded as a bad, negative impact on a student -- a disorienting and unhappy experience of returning to campus after a semester or year away while studying overseas. Each year tens of thousands of students from American colleges and universities travel to other countries and learn about other cultures. So reverse culture shock is no small matter, nor does it occur on a small scale.

The U.S. Department of State website addresses reverse culture shock seriously, as it advises travelers on treatment of “the psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of reentry”-- a topic almost exclusively relating to students’ experiences of returning from study abroad. Coaches and advisers helping students “reorient” themselves encourage students to adapt and reintegrate, because these students, during study away, may have fallen behind their peers in pop culture, lost their connections and even misidentified themselves with foreign values and individuals.

Such an approach to diagnosing and “treating” reverse culture shock completely misses the value of study abroad. Much of the purpose of study abroad is to experience the shifts of perspectives that come from new cultural as well as academic environments for learning, to establish broader global connections and to have the opportunity to better understand one’s own identity. To some extent, by exploring the unknown, students are supposed to get “disoriented” and feel out of their usual comfort zones.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be valuable to refer to reverse culture shock in terms of how we prepare for students’ move back after more than a year’s absence from our campuses, where classes will place actually in the classroom instead of in bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms that have functioned as temporary teaching and learning venues. We must consider how the pandemic and political shifts have affected students personally and academically, as well as what the future of college life looks like and the challenges students should expect.

Reshaping the Intellectual Vistas of the Institution

At Goucher College, where we’ve sent all -- 100 percent -- of our students abroad since 2006, the value of study abroad and reverse culture shock is something we spend a lot of time talking about and planning for. Institutions like ours have benefited from the rich cultures and plethora of perspectives students and faculty members bring back to campus after they return from a semester-long study overseas or short-term Intensive Courses Abroad (ICAs). The so-called reverse culture shock upon return from study abroad is an enabler of this process and has been regarded with a positive point of view. Students, faculty, staff and, oftentimes, alumni bring to campus varying perspectives that constantly shape and reshape the intellectual vistas of the institution.

We’re now planning for a reverse culture shock of a different kind to help students transition to our residential campus later this year. And we’re preparing for such conversations about what students have learned about themselves, their family, community, college and the greater world while they were away from campus. For the fall semester, while Goucher continues with traditional programs to introduce and connect students to the campus with a new student orientation and welcome week, we have also designed intentional events and activities to foster the sense of the Goucher community.

For instance, the new student programs will also be offering programming specifically for sophomore support and reacclimation to the campus community. In so doing, we will allow students to come to campus a day early to take part in an orientation-style program, and we will implement programs throughout the semester specifically geared toward sophomores for questions around study abroad, career exploration, majors and the like.

Traditionally, upon return to campus from abroad, Goucher students write and present about their semester abroad. They discuss with peers what aspects of their host cultures were most surprising and how they adjusted and what they’ve learned about their individual identity as well as their national identity. These activities have resulted in their skills to navigate environments and crises with better chances to find solutions for themselves and for others.

For this fall’s return to campus, our office of student engagement will offer social programming to help students connect and build new relationships, as well as maintain established relationships. We will also support student organizations and clubs on campus in creating activities tailored to fit the particular needs of given student groups. These social programs, through student clubs or groups, aim to introduce and (re-)connect students to the campus. For instance, our New Student Portal is a well-crafted and intentional program designed to give first-year students -- including transfer students -- opportunities to actively engage in and explore the college, its resources and the people who make up the community.

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Many of the similar events and circumstances associated with the college experience will create unfamiliarity when students adapt to a new “normal” campus environment -- something of a shock after the unexpected lengthy interruption from COVID-19. Immediately upon their return to campus, students will commiserate and share their pandemic experiences; many will lament the lost opportunities to build friendships with classmates, to connect to the campus community, to study abroad during college.

Yet all these regrets may be leveraged instead as powerful opportunities for reflection, resilience, determination and replanning. We can turn this reverse culture shock into something positive and meaningful if we get creative with our post-pandemic programs.

Bio

Luchen Li is associate vice president for global education at Goucher College.

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