This is for all of you out there, drudging through your last quarter in Santa Barbara for a semester, or maybe even for a whole year. This blog is for everyone who is excited/nervous/anxious yet looking forward to their time abroad and just can’t wait to leave. At this point, you all have surely been to your EAP pre-departure meetings and have heard a great deal about what is yet to come. You may be feeling varying levels of preparedness, and you are continuing to research the new country and the home that will be yours for a few months. In short, you are just ready to get on that plane and get the hell out of the United States. While you may be tired of EAP alumni preaching at you about their experiences, I would like to offer you all some advice about a very important subject that I feel EAP grossly neglected and that I sincerely wish someone had preached to me beforehand.
While I felt incredibly well informed about things like the academic environment in Spain, cultural differences and what to expect in my living situation, nobody discussed in any detail one very important aspect of the EAP experience: coming home. You all may be thinking, “Aren’t you currently abroad?” Yes, I am currently abroad. But I came home for about a month in between my Spain program and my Australia program, and what I experienced during that time was like nothing I could have expected.
Obviously, studying abroad is a temporary thing, but for however many months you are away, you build a life completely different than any you have ever known before. For three, four or five months, you create a new world for yourself where you take on new challenges, perhaps learn a new language and meet people that have a lasting impact on you. You travel, encounter new cultures and have unforgettable experiences. You may fall deeply in love with the place you live, feel a sense of joy and purpose abroad that you have never known at home and realize that you wish you could stay longer. At some point it hits you that your life has changed in a way you were never able to imagine before. It feels amazing, surreal and slightly dreamlike.
All is good and well until you step on that plane to go home, and if you’re like me, when you realize that nobody told you it was going to be harder to come back home than to leave.
The truth is, nobody ever impressed upon me the fact that I would need to decompress from my experiences, that it would take some time to start making sense of what had just happened to me or that I would feel distant from my friends and family for a while. I was completely caught off-guard that I was experiencing reverse culture shock, which is incredibly real, or that I would feel like a foreigner in the place I had grown up in. I was even more caught off-guard that I was missing Spain with an intensity that I couldn’t comprehend. I am here to tell you all that this is normal. As my dad put it to me, you experience quite a lot in a relatively short amount of time. You need time to process what can seem as unreal as an incredibly vivid dream.
My advice to all future EAP participants is to take homecoming one day at a time. Don’t have too many expectations and know that it will take a while to get back to “normal,” even though you can never truly go back to your old self. Talk with friends from your program. Try to maintain the friendships you created abroad. Tell your family how you’re feeling, even if they don’t understand. Keep a journal. Cry. Laugh. Feel it all. But most importantly, know that you’re not alone. Take everything you’ve learned and apply it in your life, because studying abroad is an amazing gift.