Return of the Expats

One brisk morning at the Stop and Shop in Narragansett, RI, I found myself in the frozen foods section feeling completely overwhelmed. Jean-clad mothers pushed shopping carts filled to the brim with Doritos. Oversized frozen pizzas were covered in every type of meat known to man. It was sensory overload. That morning, I stepped off a plane from India and into what felt like a whole new world. Snooki and Mitt Romney smiled at me from magazine stands, the newest rapper screamed from our car radio and my phone blew up with four months of texts and voice mails.

I’d been warned about reverse culture shock, a pattern of emotional ups and downs that one ex­periences upon returning from abroad. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought much of it. But returning from India made me feel more out of my element than arriving in India had. For the first time, I was notic­ing pieces of American culture through a critical lens. I was unnerved by the price of orange juice at the grocery store, the trashy TV shows and the large open expanses of grass between each home on the Rhode Island shore. After studying abroad, you get used to things there, and adjusting to things here is difficult.”The worst,” my Colgate friend who had also gone abroad told me over break, “is when people ask you, ‘How was the UK?’ as if you could boil the experience down.” You want to tell people everything and confining it to a simple ‘amazing,’ ‘crazy’ or ‘interesting,’ just isn’t enough.

One of the best ways to reenter America is to talk about your experiences abroad not in one-word adjectives but over coffee, and in detail. As sophomores, juniors and seniors alike return to Hamilton, NY after semesters abroad, Colgate has a whole community of people to relate to when it comes to reentry shock, as over half the student body comes and goes from around the world.

Jodi Hammer, a Peace Corps Rep, recommends networking post-return, stating “It’s building your alliance, your web of people who know about you and might be able to connect you with people who know what you’re about.” Jeremy Geller, the Director of Student International Affairs at University of Illinois, recommends finding people who share your newfound interests. Luckily enough, Colgate has everything from German Club to South Asian Cultural Club to help returned students stay connected with the place they’ve left behind. Most importantly, share your experiences with people who haven’t gone abroad yet. The wise words and advice of older students really centered my ideas about studying abroad. Students who have already studied off campus know the value in getting away from Colgate and coming back more informed. As for me, I think that the return to Colgate this semester for us former expats will be like a breath of fresh air. Reentry comes with the profound ability to look at culture with a critical eye. I know that spending a semester away will make me more alert not only to the things I appreciate about Colgate, but also to the changes that I hope our campus will see. Returning to Colgate renews my humility – I feel incredibly lucky to receive the education we receive here and to be surrounded by people who share my passion for learning.

We live in a world that gets smaller every day. As the junior class welcomes students back and says goodbye to others for the coming semester, Colgate can become a forum for the exchange of ideas, for the breaking down of boundaries and for exacting positive change. Seeing the world is an immense privilege, and taking the lessons we learn and applying them makes it worthwhile. There are problems at Colgate (and for the record, there are problems everywhere), whether they are within the Greek system, issues of racial inequality, bigotry or the hook-up culture. Hopefully stepping off campus will make us more alert when we step back on, and more willing to speak up when we want change.

Contact Coco Vonnegut at [email protected].