Home to Smith Again
By Jessie Fredlund ’07
It’s not the same place
it was when they left. The population shifted, some of the
buildings look different, some offices moved. And they are
certainly not the same people.
For some 200 students -- mostly
juniors -- who spent part of last year studying somewhere
abroad, returning to Smith after a year or semester far away
can be disorienting academically and emotionally. This year’s
crop of returning study-abroad students lived in more than
30 different countries last year, from as close and similar
as Canada to as far and different as China.
Now, beginning their third year
on campus, many of these returning students feel like first-years
again, struggling to learn their way around, slowly acclimating
themselves to Smith culture.
It’s called reverse culture
shock, and it has gained increasing attention in recent years.
This year, Smith College Counseling Service is offering group
meetings for recently returned students.
“Re-entry is often more
challenging [than leaving] because this is your home country,”
says Alison Noyes, assistant dean for international study.
“It is your real life. You aren’t leaving in four
months or ten months.”
Not all students experience
the same level of difficulty, but even small differences can
be hard to adapt to, from the sugar content in food to speaking
English every day. Many returning students have also come
back with a strong critique of “American” attitudes.
“My parents quoted me on
saying ‘stupid’ about most things American --
fast food, media, etcetera,” says Katherine Thompson
‘07, who spent last semester in Brazil.
“I felt like I couldn’t
connect with my culture anymore,” said Jessica Aguirre
’07, who recently returned from a semester in Mexico.
“I hated having interactions with people when I came
back, even with people I was really close to.”
Returning students also face
many academic obstacles. JYA returnees sometimes fall behind
other seniors in meeting requirements for graduation. Some,
such as Kelsey Livingston ’07, must readjust their academic
plans to meet new career goals inspired by their experiences
“[Study abroad] helped
me decide not to pursue a Ph.D. in math,” says Livingston,
who studied math in Hungary last year, “and find a career
choice that offers more balance.”
For many students, their study-abroad
experience has made them more thankful for the opportunities
the U.S. has to offer.
“[Living abroad] made me
feel proud to be American,” said Rebecca Heeb ’07,
who recently returned from spending 13 months in China. “I
found myself defending America a lot. I feel very privileged
and fortunate to have grown up in this society.”
Students also appreciate Smith
College more after their time overseas. “I missed vigorous
academic study,” says Heeb. “I missed engaging
in the intellectual conversations that you have with students
and faculty here.”
“[Study abroad] has made
me treasure the academic and residential support that Smith
gives its students,” echoes Livingston.
Even with all its challenges
and lessons learned, returning students almost always recommend
studying abroad to younger Smithies.
“It’s an amazing
experience. It turns you on your head,” said Denise
Patters ’07, who spent last semester in Morocco. But
there are drawbacks, Patters cautioned. “Students should
know it is a compromise. You can’t expect the same level
of inquiry that you get here at Smith. I feel like I missed
out on a semester. I wouldn’t have traded, but it’s
kind of bittersweet.”
For Heeb, what she learned outside of school more than compensated
for what she may have missed in the classroom. “Everybody,
if they can go abroad, should,” she says. “It
makes you critique yourself and your own values.”
As Livingston puts it: “When will you have the opportunity
to live and study abroad again? This is a prime opportunity.”