Reverse culture shock—is it real?

How to discuss reverse culture shock with your exchange student.

Michigan 2019-2020 Academic Year Program students
Michigan 2019-2020 Academic Year Program students. Photo by D’Ann Rohrer, MSU Extension.

The Michigan international exchange delegates will be receiving their flight information for their return trip soon. It’s not too early to start thinking about preparing them to return home. How can you as their host family help them prepare before they actually return home? Reverse culture shock is real and the effects will vary for each exchange student.

According to U.S. Department of State Diplomacy in Action, the severity of reverse culture shock depends on how much contact the exchange student had back home while on exchange. Did your exchange student try to live in two countries at the same time? If they did, which is strongly discouraged, they probably won’t experience as severe reverse culture shock as a student who fully immersed themselves in American culture by limiting their contact with their home country.

Students in frequent contact back home are more aware of all the changes that are occurring while they are away, so when they return their reverse culture shock will be minimal. The exchange student’s time spent connected with home is reducing the time they are connecting with American culture and gaining experiences.

A student who travels abroad leaves their home country with an identity that has been developed over several years from relationships, routines, practices, smells, sounds and feelings. Upon arriving on exchange, they are immersed in a new culture with new relationships, routines, practices, smells and sounds that bring new or different feelings. Through this process, delegates form new identities from a new “host” country. Their new home is associated with all the people, actions, feelings, emotions and cues that make them feel “at home.” Their identity is beginning to change to fit into their new environment.

Fast-forward nine months to the moment your exchange student realizes they are returning home. Three points of discussion are encouraged to prepare them for re-entry to help reduce departure anxiety:

  • Discuss how home may have changed while they were away.
  • Discuss how they have changed over the last several months.
  • Discuss how your exchange student had to adapt to this culture and how they may have to adapt to their home country.
Kamphouse family with their delegate Abd El Rahman from Egypt
Kamphouse family with their delegate Abd El Rahman from Egypt. Photo by D’Ann Rohrer, MSU Extension.

Helping your exchange student mentally prepare prior to the return hopefully will help them through the re-entry process. The following are re-entry experiences shared by exchange students:

  • “I had to get used to having lots of people around me.”
  • “I struggled remembering how to use public transportation again.”
  • “My friends changed. Some are not my friends anymore and others who weren’t my friends are my closest friends now.”
  • “Sometimes I struggled to find the words to speak in my native language.”
  • “I eat differently now. I even eat breakfast, which I didn’t do before my trip, but now I can’t live without it.”
  • “I felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I withdrew from situations, became depressed.”

Supporting youth during these transition periods will make them stronger. Once they are able to recover from an uncomfortable situation and make adjustments for the future, they will be able to overcome many more obstacles forthcoming.

4-H grows strong international friendships. 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 and leadership and civic engagement team member, at drohrer@anr.msu.edu.

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