Returning home after an exchange year

How to prepare for the return to your homeland, birth parents and reverse culture shock.

Nino hugging her host sister goodbye at the airport.
Nino hugging her host sister goodbye at the airport. Photo by Lisa Crouch.

Only a few people will ever experience the wonders of living in another country for a full year. Most of those lucky few are from countries other than the United States. Why do so many international students want to come to the United States for a year of learning? Why are there so few American youth willing to study abroad while in high school? How does an exchange student prepare for the return to their home country?

There are different lengths of stays available for students to choose from when looking to study abroad. Some organizations offer a year-long experience, but others offer shorter experiences. States’ 4-H International Exchange Program offers a four- or eight-week summer outbound exchange experience. The countries available are Japan, Norway, Korea, Taiwan, Finland and Costa Rica. There are options available for interested students with the understanding the longer you live in another country, the more cultural understanding you absorb.

According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, there are many benefits to participating in an exchange year. The delegate will develop leadership skills, build self-confidence and cultivate a greater understanding of the entire world. As an exchange student lives in another country, they take more responsibility for themselves, learn to respect differences and acquire a tolerance to others beliefs. But most importantly, the lasting connections and friendships which grow are unmeasurable.

So, how does an exchange student prepare to leave this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Some will retreat to their rooms for some reflection time and mental preparation for the return. Many will experience emotional moments of joy, tears or frustration. One of the most important things you can do for your exchange student is communicate openly with them.

Yusup and host dad saying goodbye at the airport.
Yusup and host dad saying goodbye at the airport. Photo by Janis Brinn, MSU Extension.

According to the The Center for Global Education, exchange students may experience reverse cultural shock – the shock suffered by some people when they return home after being overseas. This is where they experience unexpected difficulty in readjusting to culture and values of the home country. Students will notice home has changed, they have changed and students are finding themselves readapting to their own culture. Reverse culture shock maybe more difficult than culture shock.

As host families, how should you help your exchange student prepare to go back to their home country? First, talk about the stages, disengagement, initial euphoria, irritability and hostility, and readjustment and adaption. Having open communication with your delegate about the transition home will help prepare them for a successful transition. Help them understand all the feelings they are experiencing and might experience when they return home. Be supportive when they are showing different emotions, while they try to decide what to leave behind and take them shopping for gifts to take home to family and friends.

Finally, keep them active so they have less time to worry or feel sad. Enjoy some family reflection time to discuss all the fun times you shared during the exchange period. There may be tears, but at the airport say, “Until next time!” because more times than not there is a next time.

4-H grows international bonds, which last a lifetime. If you would like to learn more about 4-H International Exchange Programs, visit Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H International Exchange Programs website, or contact D’Ann Rohrer, state coordinator, leadership and civic engagement team member, at drohrer@msu.edu.


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