Study Abroad Reentry: Empowerment
By Marcia Waller
Study abroad specialists recognize that reentry is an important part of American students study abroad experience. However, returning students do not appear eager for our help. Reentry programs are sparsely attended (unless we offer food). This is often seen as a weakness in our programming. But perhaps we are too hard on ourselves. It may be that we have done our job too well and that students have absorbed the lessons of their time abroad very deeply.
The implicit purpose of study abroad is to allow students to develop their own coping mechanisms and sense of responsibility. We are proud of our students when they return having displayed evidence of personal growth. They have been empowered. And while the reentry experience can be a time of disillusionment and disorientation as students attempt to fit their new selves into their old lives, it is also an opportunity for them to practice their new coping skills and independence on their home ground. This may be the reason they are not attracted to reentry programs, especially if they sense that their ability to manage their own affairs is in question.
If we hope to make significant contact with our returned students, it is very important to tread lightly when considering issues of personal adjustment. While students may well be experiencing some problems, they are most probably reluctant to admit such difficulties to the very people who facilitated their study abroad experience, and who, in the students perception, naturally expect them to return as capable, mature individuals.
A few students may of course have serious personal problems which have been exacerbated by their time abroad. These students should be encouraged to seek counseling by professionals who are aware of the impacts of intercultural exposure. However, my experience is that we can best serve the majority of our returned students by allowing them to "showcase" their newly-discovered strengths rather than implying that they need help in coping--which may result only in resistance and avoidance.
In most cases, the returnees are planning to graduate within one or two semesters and are already moving into the "what next" stage. Our efforts to contact them and utilize their experience will give them a convenient means of blending their previous and current situations constructively, emphasize ways that they can help themselves and others, and prepare them for life after graduation. It will also help them keep a link with their institution at a time when they may be feeling somewhat detached from it.
Because circumstances vary from campus to campus, the framework in which we facilitate our returned students activities will vary widely. An institution with many of its own study abroad programs and a large staff can reach returnees through an established communications network to inform them of opportunities to network and volunteer. There may even be opportunities to pay returnees for study abroad office work as peer advisers.
It is critical to devise procedures to make contact with returnees as soon as possible after their return. I send a "welcome home" letter at the end of each semester to each student who has studied abroad in that semester, inviting them to come to my office when they return to campus. I enclose a program evaluation form for them to return, giving them their first opportunity to provide feedback. The form also acts as a means of indicating their willingness to help with recruitment and advising.
Recruitment and volunteerism are ways for returnees to help others. They include assistance at recruitment/publicity tables, study abroad fairs, parents weekend activities, orientation sessions for outgoing students, and any other venue where students hope to learn more about studying abroad. Returnees are very effective advisers in every stage of the study abroad process.
Employment and networking allow returnees to help themselves. Volunteering at the study abroad office, participating in international students programming, and participating in returnee groups to process their experiences with other returnees are all good ways to gain work experience and network.
Planning for the future. To encourage our returnees to move beyond the present, we can provide job search information using our NAFSA-SECUSSA connections, short-term work abroad opportunities, and NAFSA membership and job registry contacts. We can refer them to graduate schools with an international focus. We can encourage our campus career center to provide assistance for students seeking jobs in the international arena and in broader employment areas such as the nonprofit sector.
In short, reentry should be thought of as a broadly defined process, not simply a one-time debriefing session. Such a process will take a different form with each student and will require a great deal of one-on-one contact. However, the rewards, for all involved are significant.
MARCIA B. WALLER is Study Abroad Adviser in the International Programs Office at Miami Univ., Oxford, OH.