When Your Student Returns
We asked a former study abroad participant to contribute her feelings upon returning to the United States after a semester abroad. She hopes her thoughts will help you and your family prepare for your child's return.
I was flying home on Christmas day. Not the most convenient time for my family, I know, but the ticket was cheaper. I had teased my mom about the surprise party they were going to throw me when I returned. I had only been teasing, but after missing Thanksgiving, I couldn't wait for some good, ole' turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. My flight didn't get in until 9 p.m., but after a semester of late-night European dinners, it didn't seem very late, and I figured my family would wait for me. After a day of traveling, my study abroad buddy and I arrived at O'hare International airport. Her entire family had driven from Wisconsin to meet her at the airport. I walked off the plane, and nobody from my family was there. My dad was only 10 minutes late, but it still hurt a little not to have any excited faces to meet me at the end of a long flight. I had been gone for four months!
We went back to the house (the rest of the family didn't want to be bothered to drive out to meet me), and I got a couple of hugs and a, "So how was it?" And, well, that was it. I didn't get the good ole' turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. I got leftover Kraft macaroni and cheese because my mom hadn't wanted to cook a whole meal. They hadn't even waited to eat the Kraft dinner. I ate the leftovers, distributed the Christmas gifts I had bought for my family, and then I opened my Christmas gifts--they hadn't waited to exchange the presents, either. Then everyone went to bed. I was still wired, so I stayed up by myself and watched Cosby Show re-runs until I was finally ready to sleep. I didn't expect a song and dance. I guess I just wanted a little special treatment—four months is a long time. I wanted a little recognition they were happy I was home. I came back a completely different person. My career goals had changed. I had a million stories to tell. I had made a million new friends. I know my family loves me, and I love them, but there is nothing harder in this world than experiencing something only a few really care about. It seemed to me like my family just wanted to hear, "Yeah, it was awesome!" and then go back to their daily lives.
My situation was pretty much a worst-case scenario for me. The best you can do is be there for your child and listen to the stories when no one else will. At the very most, throw your son or daughter a welcome-home party with imported wine and cheese. At the very least, turn off the television, have a family dinner and ask questions. Then listen to the responses. So many people don't want to hear about the details. You and your family might be your child's only willing ear.
Your son or daughter will also probably experience homesickness for the other culture. Again, be there to listen. It's hard to return from a place you just got used to. Encourage your son or daughter to think about joining international clubs on campus or think about other international experiences like the Peace Corps.
Your child will also probably have very different world views. They've lived and adapted in another culture. They might see home with more critical eyes, but they will also really appreciate what they missed while they were away. So try to make your son or daughter feel special. Make them their favorite dish or take them out to a movie, but mainly try to listen to and respect their opinions - even if you don't agree with them. Your son or daughter will come back a different person, but he or she is also going to return ready to make the world a better place. And they'll thank you for all of your love and support.