Six years ago, I was given an opportunity to see parts of the world that, at this point in my life, had only existed in pictures and books in history and English classes.
The Pyramids of Giza, the Roman Coliseum, and the Parthenon in Greece were about to leap from their pages and become tangible places. With three years of research and planning under my belt, I felt adequately prepared for my trip.
But nothing could prepare me for the experience of coming home.
During my senior year of high school, I researched a plethora of study abroad options, finally settling on a comparative study program that surveys Southern Europe and Northern Africa, visiting seven Mediterranean countries in total. I then spent my first two years of undergrad determining how to fit this program into my coursework. Finally, I compiled my program application and applied for endless scholarships, got my visas in order and tickets booked, and settled everything at home to leave for 10 weeks. I was accepted, I found funding, and I left that home to see the world.
With three years of research and planning under my belt, I felt adequately prepared for my trip. But nothing could prepare me for the experience of coming home.
The next thing I knew, 10 weeks happened.
I could write about the places that I went and the things I saw, but the pictures do a better job describing them. And to be honest, it really isn’t the stories that are interesting. More memorable were the people I met along the way.
I remember the person in Barcelona who complimented me on my middle-school Spanish (in English) when I needed to buy a new belt after leaving my old one at the airport security checkpoint. I remember the barber in Istanbul who, upon hearing that I only had enough Turkish lira for the haircut but wanted one last cup of Turkish apple tea, went next door to get me a cup of tea free of charge. I remember the Gyro shop that opened in Piraeus, Greece just three weeks before we got there, because I spent the better part of 3 days having almost every meal there with my classmates while sketching out our parallel journeys.
Most importantly, I remember the people I traveled with. Of all the people in the world, these people were the ones who, at this particular moment in time, were discovering the world in a similar way as me. To paraphrase from The Last Goodnight’s “Pictures of You,” I saw the world for what it could have been.
Then, we returned home. And I embarked on a new experience: re-entry shock.
I’ve spent the last six years attempting to mitigate my reentry shock.
The first three months after returning home, I tried to reincorporate myself in my home environment, only to realize that everyone else moved on as much as I did over the course of 10 weeks. Friends were happy for me, but after repeated stories of great adventures they were not part of, they became annoyed. The people I studied abroad with were now online contacts. We went from living on the same floor and sharing our meals every day to being pictures on generic Facebook profiles connected artificially across miles and miles of physical distance.
Most importantly, I remember the people I traveled with. Of all the people in the world, these people were the ones who, at this particular moment in time, were discovering the world in a similar way as me.
Re-entry shock, to me, is the realization that my world is what it is and not what it could have been.
I ended up flying across the country six months after returning home to visit a slew of friends from San Francisco to Los Angeles (with stops in between). My couch in New York became a free hotel for anyone from my study abroad trip who was in town and needed a place to crash (much to the amusement of my parents, who enjoyed seeing personified samples of why their son changed while he was abroad).
A lot has happened in my life since then as well. I joined a political campaign and spent two months in New Hampshire, where I learned that changing the world requires learning how to do so instead of just wanting to do so. I spent another year working at a nonprofit investigating how to make schools into a safe and secure environment for everyone, where I saw just how much work is needed to enact change—much less make it sustainable. Finally, I moved across the country to pursue a doctorate degree in social psychology, where I now study how we form who we are based upon who we identify with.
And yet, I still miss them. Every day, I think about the people who were there and the people I’ve met since. I post pictures of sunsets because they remind me of seeing them over the ocean and wondering at how something that literally occurs once every day never appears to be the same across two consecutive days. I’ll take day trips to explore new places with old and new friends, only to go home and wonder what everyone else is up to. When I hear about the latest terrorist attacks in places I visited, I think about the barber in Turkey or the cab driver in Cairo or the storekeeper in Marrakesh. I wonder if they are okay, only to realize that I do not really have any idea how to get in contact with them to even find out.
Relationships have become memories, and people have become abstractions.
My re-entry shock persists six years later. Relationships have become memories, and people have become abstractions. The places have returned to being pictures on Facebook, which isn’t so different from when they were photos in history textbooks. Studying abroad and returning home has accounted for every major decision I’ve made since. I see my friends—both older and more recent—living their own lives and making their own journeys as signposted through Facebook and Instagram (and, if I knew how to properly use it, Snapchat). Some still remain close. Many more do not.
How has it been six years? And how will I feel when it has been six more?
Studying abroad will change your life forever. But for all of the things it adds to life, it will leave a gaping hole in your heart and mind. Such is life with re-entry shock.
How did you feel when your study abroad program ended? How did you adjust coming home from your first long trip abroad? What are your experiences with re-entry shock?
Let us know in the comments!