Students are walking around campus looking lost and out of place. They’re wearing berets in summer, eating everything with chopsticks, giving directions in kilometers, and using the phrase “Blimey” entirely too much. Yep, these students are back from studying abroad.
The process of readjusting to life at home after living an exciting adventure overseas is not easy. It’s made even harder by the fact that most students don’t expect to have trouble readapting. They’re excited to see their friends and can’t wait to share all their amazing stories. Soon enough, real life starts to set in. They feel bored by being at home. They realize others don’t fully understand the experiences they had while abroad. They start to see how much they’ve changed and have difficulty connecting with others in the same way as before.
The process of re-entry is every bit as important as the actual study abroad program itself. Providing students with the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, discover how they’ve changed, connect with others who share similar interests, and find ways to integrate their experience into their life and studies will help them make the most of the time they spent overseas.
A re-entry conference can facilitate participants’ deeper analysis of their time abroad while also easing the transition back into “normal” life.
But where to start?
We’ve got some step-by-step instructions to help you along as you plan your re-entry conference. Follow these and soon enough those lost, out of place students will start to look comfortable and confident in their new role as global ambassador.
1) Logistics: Pick a date. Pick a time. Pick a location.
We recommend a one-day conference lasting 6-7 hours. You’ll have to factor in registration, lunch, and closing, so any time less than 6 hours will make it difficult to squeeze in the important stuff. Weekends are optimal as students won’t have classes to work around.
As for location, think about how many students will be participating and choose a venue that can accommodate that number. Be sure that the venue is convenient for students, since not all may have access to transportation.
2) Plan your workshops and their content.
There are numerous topics under the heading “re-entry” that can provide the material for your sessions. Below are some of the most important that will help participants as they begin to process their experience.
Commonly termed “unpacking”, students returning from abroad need time to make sense of the experience. They need to be able to think about how they’ve changed and in what ways they’ve grown. There are a lot of different activities that can be done to address this aspect of re-entry, but some of our top suggestions are below.
How was it?: In groups, invite students to discuss the challenges in answering that question so often posed by friends and family. Have them strategize ways to respond.
How this is beneficial: Students will get asked this question a lot, and it’s hard to think of a succinct way to sum up an entire summer or semester experience. This will give participants a chance to practice so they can be prepared for those inevitable moments.
Compare and Contrast
Have students make a chart showing the differences in their daily life abroad versus back home in the US. In groups have them share their charts and discuss potential causes for those variances.
How this is beneficial: This will encourage students to probe the reasons behind cultural differences and allow them to better understand their own culture and way of doing things. It can also help students create a more balanced perspective of life overseas and at home. They can reflect on the advantages of being abroad (travel, adventure, mangos lassis and speculoos) while also learning to appreciate the advantages of being back home (no more currency conversions or time zone hopping!).
Write a letter
Ask students to take some time to write a letter to a fictional study abroad student. Have them offer advice on what they can expect to gain from the experience, what challenges they might face, and share their tips for making the most out of every day.
How this is beneficial: This activity will give students a chance to reflect on their experience. They can take the time to think back about their accomplishments and struggles, how they changed and how they stayed the same.
(For additional resources check out NAFSA’s Orientation/Re-entry Programming page that is chock full of ideas.)
The Meat and Potatoes: So what IS re-entry and reverse culture shock? Students want to know what they can expect from this process and learn how they can successfully readjust.
In this workshop it’s important to share with students some of the ways they can expect to feel upon returning home as well as the stages of their transition back into everyday life. Providing them with strategies for managing the challenges they’ll face will reassure students that there are steps they can to take to ease the transition.
There are a lot of great online resources that you can reference when developing this session. We recommend checking out the Returnee Workshop Reader by UC Davis’ Education Abroad Center and the information posted on Re-entry by IES Abroad.
Professional Development: The experience of studying abroad is a valuable one that many employers look upon favorably. These experiences require adaptability, open-mindedness, resourcefulness, and cultural sensitivity (to name a few). Being able to communicate these skills to an interviewer can give students a leg up on the competition.
At your re-entry conference we recommend providing a workshop during which students can learn how best to showcase their experience in their resume and/or cover letter. Show them how to clearly articulate the skills they gained while abroad, and offer them tips for communicating these strengths in an interview.
In this way students will learn how to leverage their experience overseas to demonstrate to future employers a vast repertoire of desirable skills.
Networking: Part of the incentive for attending a re-entry conference is the chance to meet other students who have also studied abroad. This is a group of people who will understand better than most the difficulties of re-entry. Students can provide support to each other during this transition process, and they will be relieved to know that they’re not the only ones struggling to readjust. Make sure to plan some time during the conference for students to mix and mingle.
However, because it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with a stranger, here are some suggested icebreakers to get the conversation started.
- Telephone: Students are arranged in a line or circle. The person who starts is given a piece of paper with a word, phrase, or sentence. They then whisper that to the person beside them, and so on down the line. The final person has to say what they heard, which is usually drastically different from the original word, phrase, or sentence. (Tip: The larger the group, the funnier the ending!)
Why it’s a good one: Students will easily relate to this activity as they remember all the communication difficulties they experienced while abroad.
- 4 Corners: This activity will get people up and moving (always a sure fire way to get energy levels back up!). The corners are labeled strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Have someone call out statements and then have students stand in the corresponding corner.
Some examples of statements could be: “I became fluent in my host country’s language”; “I lived with a host family”; “It was easy to make friends abroad”; or “I wish I could study abroad again!”.
Why it’s a good one: Students will begin to see all the things they have in common with other conference attendees. These statements can also provide great jumping-off points for conversations.
- The Wind Blows: Participants form a circle with one person standing in the middle. The person in the middle calls out, “The wind blows everyone who___” (is wearing sandals, studied abroad in Asia, loves macaroni and cheese, etc) and completes the sentence. For everyone to whom that sentence applies, they must run across the circle and find a new spot. The person in the middle tries to find a new spot as well, and the last person standing is the new caller.
Why it’s a good one: Energetic and a great conversation starter. Plus giggles are basically guaranteed.
(For additional examples of icebreakers and fun “get to know you” activities, check out the Icebreakers and Cultural Games on NAFSA’s website.)
Taking the Next Step: Now that they’ve studied abroad, students want to know how they can incorporate their experience in their academic and professional lives. There are a lot of different opportunities they can pursue:
- Publish stories
- Take a class related to their new interests (in-person or online).
- Conduct research.
- Attend a conference
- Volunteer on campus or in the community.
- Join a campus club related to their interest.
- Apply for graduate school.
- Make a presentation about their experience.
- Become a study abroad ambassador or mentor.
- Study abroad again!
You can invite university clubs or local organizations to come set up information booths to share with students ways they can get involved. Invite a panel of professors to speak about the different courses offered within their departments or share about the various research projects they’re undertaking. Provide information about scholarships and grants that allow students to continue their international passions. And of course, you can invite students to help in the study abroad office as advisors for others considering an experience overseas.
By providing students with suggestions of outlets for all their post-study abroad energies, you will be enabling them to put into use all that they have experienced. Study abroad shouldn’t end just because a student has returned home. Instead, encourage them to find opportunities to continue letting the experience impact their lives.
Student Exhibitions: Students returning from study abroad are eager to share with others their stories of adventure, their funny cultural mishaps, and their beautiful photographs. We recommend providing participants with an opportunity to showcase their experience.
- Create an exhibit of returning students’ favorite photographs: Make it a competition with categories for landscape, action shot, group picture, local culture, and yummy food. We have no doubt students will be excited to have a captive audience looking at some of the many images they’ve taken.
- Have a video contest: Invite students to submit a short video of their time abroad, giving viewers an additional insight into the daily life and culture of that country.
- Make time for an open mic segment: Give students a time limit and let them share their favorite stories, moments, or impressions from being abroad.
3) Recruit participants
Spread the word! Send the event information to all past study abroad students, post it on Facebook, distribute posters around campus, and ask teachers and study abroad program leaders to encourage their students to attend.
Students get excited talking about their overseas experiences, and they should be plenty eager for the opportunity to share with like-minded individuals. Many returnees are also interested in finding local outlets for their newfound passions, and they’ll be appreciative for the chance to learn about available internships, volunteer work, courses, organizations, and more that exist in their area.
Unpacking the study abroad experience can last a lifetime, so you can even extend the invite to students who returned from their time abroad less recently. They can also serve as a great resource for newer returnees who are looking for advice and suggestions on integrating their experience into their academic and professional lives.
You’ve done the work. Now watch things unfold!
5) Solicit feedback
You did a great job, no doubt about it. But don’t get complacent. There are always ways to improve.
Have the participants fill out short surveys before the conference is over. Ask them what they liked, what they didn’t like. Find out their most favorite and least favorite workshops or activities. Have them share whether there were other topics they wish had been covered.
With this information you can continue to improve the experience for future participants and be certain your conference is meeting students’ needs.
6) Sit back. Relax.
The study abroad experience doesn’t end with that final flight home. The memories made, friendships built, and lessons learned will continue to resonate and impact the rest of their lives.
Now thanks to your re-entry conference, students can feel more confident in their abilities to share this life-changing experience with others. They will embrace their new perspectives, learn to integrate their experience into their daily life, and ultimately become actively engaged global citizens. Nice work!