Got the post-year abroad blues? You’re not alone

Alice Barraclough golden gate bridge

After a year spent enjoying a new culture and meeting new people, it can be hard to settle in to life back home….

The study abroad office warned us about “reverse culture shock” – feeling blue upon returning to the UK. But nothing prepared me for the reality.

Goodbye Reese’s cupcakes, fraternity parties and weekly American football games. Goodbye free gym membership, glorious sunshine and endless amounts of frozen yoghurt. Goodbye travelling – and the free spirit of the year abroad.

After returning from a year in America last year, studying at the University of South Carolina, I felt a little out of place back in the UK.

Words such as restlessness, isolation, uncertainty and depression were thrown around at meetings before we left to study abroad. But it wasn’t until I moved back to my UK university that feelings of loneliness surfaced.

Immediately after returning to the UK comes the giddy excitement phase – being reunited with friends and family after being thousands of miles apart. But once the initial elation is over, the downward spiral begins.

Dread filled my stomach as I packed my bags for my fourth and final year at university. The familiar was distorted, filled with new faces and lacking the ones who had graduated and left.

A year abroad enables you to be independent and adaptable. It develops your respect for other cultures and viewpoints, and indicates a desire to challenge yourself. The skills I gained, and the memories and friendships I made, will stay with me forever.

So why, after gaining confidence and cultural awareness abroad, do students sometimes lose them soon after returning to the UK?

Lance Workman, a psychology professor at the University of South Wales, says there has been little research into the reverse culture shock, but it’s something he has “frequently encountered in students who have decided to take a year out prior to beginning their course or undertaking an exchange year during their course”.

Some may say one year is too short a period after which to experience the phenomenon, and that students are being over-dramatic. But as Workman points out, a year is 5% of a 20-year-old’s lifetime.

Charleston, South Carolina

I’m far from the only student to have experienced this. Sasha Catcher, 21, a final-year student at the University of Warwick, spent a year in Hong Kong and, like me, felt certain things didn’t live up to her expectations upon returning to the UK.

“After a year sharing a room with two other people, I was looking forward to being reunited with my bed and my things and having personal space,” says Catcher. “But I discovered that material things aren’t that important to me anymore and I’d be just as happy living back in my crowded Hong Kong room.”

Rob Daniel, 21, also at Warwick, spent a year in Barcelona at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. What he misses most about Spain is his tight-knit friendship group. “We did everything together, since we all knew we were all there for only a year,” he says.

This unity and belonging is key to understanding how displaced you feel upon returning home. Daniel adds: “We were all in it together – a feeling I don’t really get back in England.”

So why is returning home such a struggle? Perhaps it’s because no matter how much I bore others with my stories of spring break, Thanksgiving, southern fried chicken and most importantly, the people, they’ll never really “get it”.

Isobel Sayers, 21, a student at the University of Leeds, studied at the University College Utrecht, Netherlands, and describes returning home as an anti-climax. After adapting to the Dutch educational system, “being immediately snowed under with lots of work was a shock,” she says.

Life in Britain seems unbearably slow now: instead of weekends spent socialising and sightseeing, essay deadlines dominate my thoughts and even going to the gym leaves me feeling guilty for not spending time in the library.

Ellie Charles, 22, a student at the University Kent, studied at the Univerzita Karlova v Praze, Prague, and feels the same. “Life in Prague seemed more exciting, with a lot more opportunities to explore,” she says. “I forgot how expensive the UK is, and most of my friends have now graduated, so the experience seems different without them.”

A spokesperson at the University of Kent’s student wellbeing team says the absence of old friends and peers makes it hard for year-abroad students to settle back in to university life. “They feel alone having to start making friends all over again, and having experienced a vibrant study, work and social life abroad, it’s difficult to settle back to the mundane student lifestyle back here.”

I may have lost honky-tonk bars and Dunkin’ Donuts, but I haven’t completely lost my new found independence and outlook on life. My year abroad profoundly changed me and the person I strive to be, and after having moved to the other side of the world on my own, all other challenges seem minor.

How to overcome the post-year abroad blues

  • Fully immerse yourself in student life. Join a sports team, a musical band, the student radio station, or even the tea-drinking society, to make new friendships with like-minded people.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about your time away. If it’s getting you down, seek help at your university’s counselling service.
  • But avoid “When I was in [country name]…” anecdotes where possible. They’ll alienate anyone who didn’t spend a year away.
  • Explore new places in your university town. Go to new bars, secret cafés, or cool museums. This will help you find a new love for it, instead of comparing it to the place you’ve just come from.
  • If you feel a little different from how you felt before your year away, that’s normal. Acknowledge that you’re a different person. Your world view has been altered by living in another culture. Keep a journal to help you understand how you’ve changed and developed.

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Article Published on The Guardian Website. 4th June 2015.

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