It’s been nearly three weeks since my study abroad program ended and I said goodbye to Thailand. Since then, there have been plenty of joyous moments that go along with coming home—reuniting with friends and family, holiday celebrations, eating Mexican food….
Yet, the past three weeks have not been without a good dose of reverse culture shock. In many ways, returning to life in the US has been just as much of an adjustment as moving to Thailand was. I desperately miss my life as a study abroad student. I miss living in Thailand, studying development and human rights, doing work that felt meaningful, and I also miss all the friends that I made along the way.
Fortunately, I have a lot to look forward to this coming semester, and focusing on all the things I’m going to do this spring has been a good distraction from forlorn thoughts of Thailand. I’ve missed Rochester dearly and cannot wait to be back on campus and begin the process of reconciling my old life there with the new perspectives and knowledge I gained while abroad.
Here are five ways I plan on moving forward this semester without leaving study abroad behind:
Returning and reconnecting
Going back to school means going back to the friends, routines, and responsibilities that have largely made up my life for the past two years. Part of me is incredibly excited about this. I’ve loved my years in Rochester and as a rather nostalgic individual, I cannot wait to get lunch downtown at Spot Coffee, study in Rush Rhees Library, and attend a performance at Todd Theatre. I recognize, however, that I shouldn’t expect to automatically fit back into all my past roles as a Rochester student—at least not in the same way.
Studying abroad has changed me in many ways and given me new perspectives, goals, and values. It will take some time before I figure out how these new things will play out in my old world. But figuring that out is something I am both ready and excited for. And I’m also not alone. I’m lucky enough to have the support of a number of Rochester friends who are also returning from studying abroad who will be going through the re-entry experience right along with me.
Reducing my possessions
One thing I learned from studying abroad is how few material objects I really need to be comfortable and happy. I lived out of a single suitcase for four months and rarely felt that I was wanting of anything. Now, thinking about the nine large boxes of things I have waiting for me in Rochester is almost embarrassing. Somehow I’ve accumulated much more than is practical for someone who loves to travel and doesn’t plan on settling down for a very long time. When I get back to Rochester, sorting through all that stuff and making a donation run to Goodwill will be one of the first things I do.
Expanding what I’ve learned
While in Thailand, I studied development and globalization issues, learning about everything from water management and gold mining to land rights and water buffalo, in addition to taking Thai language classes and a few journalism workshops. I really enjoyed what I studied and when it was time to register for spring courses, I wanted to make sure that I could continue learning about at least a few of the same topics. Participating in our organic agriculture unit and completing a photo essay were two of my favorite academic experiences last semester and I am therefore delighted to have the opportunity to take both a photography class and a course titled “Food, Media, and Literature” at Rochester this spring.
Studying abroad was a wonderful self-contained experience, but just because it’s over doesn’t mean I’m going to stop caring about what I learned during those four months. My program exposed me to so many important issues and I am determined to look at it as the beginning of a lifetime of learning and caring about how development, government policy, and culture relate to human rights and how things like journalism and photography can educate the masses and make a difference for affected communities.
Adjusting what I eat
As I already mentioned, our organic agriculture unit was one of my favorites last semester. Both reading and talking to people about the agricultural systems and markets in Thailand and the US really affected the way I think about food. While some of what I learned was simply a reiteration of what I already knew (organic products are healthier for us and the earth, American meat consumption is unsustainable…), much of it was brand new information (I’d never heard of the Farm Bill before and really had no concept of how corrupt and unsustainable agricultural production systems are around the world). After that unit I immediately started changing my eating (and purchasing) habits and plan to make similar adjustments once I get back to school. Majorly cutting down on my meat intake and trying to eat as seasonally, locally, and organically as possible will all be in the works.
Keeping in touch
Saying goodbye to Thailand and all the places and people I encountered there was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a very long time. Many tears were shed during my final hours with my fellow students and many more were shed when I got home and read the notes they’d written to me in my memory book (something we each made during our last week in Thailand to store each other’s addresses, birthdays, and goodbye messages). But as much as I hated leaving, I know that there are many ways for me to stay connected to Thailand, the program, and my friends.
Years ago, alumni of the CIEE Khon Kaen: Development & Globalization program founded ENGAGE (Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange), a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping past students involved with the issues they studied and the program they all have in common. In addition to providing opportunities for active participation in things like human rights reports and mining resistance campaigns, ENGAGE also sends out frequent community and program updates to keep alumni in the loop.
But keeping in touch is also about the people and I have to say that I am thankful for things like Facebook and Snapchat for allowing my program group to continue to be in constant communication. While I’m sure the updates and messages about encountering each other’s doppelgangers will likely let up a bit once we’re all back in school, it’s a huge comfort knowing my study abroad family will still be close at hand when I need them. While I know I’m going to continue missing study abroad for a long time, I’m happy to have the opportunities and technology that I do to hold me over until I can return to Thailand and reunite (if only briefly) with the friends I made there.