Written by: Heather Cox, Contributing Writer
If you pass Ali Dunn (jr) on campus, don’t be surprised if she avoids eye contact with you.
At least at first.
It’s not that Dunn is anti-social. Instead, she’s just heeding the customs of Aix-en-Provence, France, where she recently studied abroad for a semester—and where direct eye contact is viewed as verboten.
“As an American, if I made eye contact with an older woman on the street, she became offended, because I entered into her ‘personal space,’” recalled Dunn, who spent more than four months last summer in the southern part of France studying French. “I still catch myself not looking or smiling at anyone because I have become accustomed to the French way of life.”
Dunn is among a growing number of Indiana Wesleyan University students who are taking their education outside of the traditional campus to study abroad, whether that’s on a short-term trip with Dr. Michael Buck to Scotland and England or a longer trip such as Dunn’s.
In the fall of 2011, just three students studied abroad. This fall, 16 students participated in semester affiliate programs, according to Sandra J. Emmett, IWU’s education abroad supervisor. This is more than 400 percent increase.
“We average about 12 [students] per semester now, where we used to average about three to five,” Emmett said.
But when those students return, they often struggle with what some call “reverse cultural shock.”
In other words, they need to make a lot of readjustments when returning to campus.
Amy Foster (sr) traveled to Orvieto, Italy, with Gordon IN Orvieto program during the 2013 fall semester. Foster took part in studying abroad to learn, explore, and live quietly for a semester.
“Coming back to campus was really, really hard,” Foster says. “The general culture of IWU felt very fake when I first came back.”
Before she left to study abroad, Foster thought the IWU culture was “the real deal.” It was hard for her when she returned, because everything then seemed fake. However, since this initial feeling after returning to campus, she is now able to distinguish the difference between genuine faith, and “fake faith.”
“Sometimes its easy to mistake a habit born of Christian phrases, music, and college culture as people being fake. What’s really happening is that they are following their own sort of liturgy,” Foster said. “What matters is whether or not they are acting in an intentional, God-fearing way or not.”
Katherine Fitch (sr), who traveled to Seville, Spain, explained, “I really struggled with sticking to a strict schedule and can’t casually show up thirty minutes late and everyone being okay with that.”
Not only is it hard for the students to readjust to life on campus, but they also have to deal with being “homesick” for their new “home.”
Dunn recalled her peaceful morning walks to school with views of the vendors setting up their fruit and vegetable stands for the day, and taking a daily newspaper from men who would pass them out on the streets.
“My host family became my home away from home,” Dunn also said. “Leaving them was probably the most painful part.”
Foster added, “your definition of home is stretched across an ocean.”
It was also hard for the students because their friends and family couldn’t relate to their stories and experience on a deeper level.
Allison Manwell (jr), who also traveled to Seville, Spain, said even though she has friends and family who have been on missions trips in foreign countries, there is still something different about actually living in a foreign country.
Students have also expressed a frustration in the fact that there’s not a lot of help to readjust to campus life when they return. They said they almost feel like they were thrown back into their old life with no advice or warning as to how difficult it would be.
In regard to this returning “culture shock,” Emmett advises students to take advantage of the new requirements for students to participate in before they depart, including the Introduction to Cross-Cultural Engagement course and the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale assessment tool and coaching review.
There are also books, tools and resources in the Global Engagement Office to inform students of pre-departure and post-return information to assist them in preparation beforehand as well as processing and adjusting afterward.
There was also a “Welcome Back!” event held November 18 for those who studied abroad recently to assist them with reflecting back on their experiences, as well as participate in workshops teaching them how to build a resume and how to use these experiences post-graduation.
Emmett’s personal advice for returning students? Stop by the Global Engagement Office or contact the Center for Student Success.
“We can provide lots of tips and ideas on how to use and process your experience,” she said.
For Foster, it was a conversation with a professor that best helped her navigate her return home.
“Nobody told me how hard it would be,” Foster said. “What finally broke through was when my advisor, Professor Ron Mazellan, told me that it was okay to mourn a place. Allowing myself to be sad helped me to heal.”