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Coming 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.

Katherine Thompson ’07 in the Brazilian rainforest

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.

Kelsey Livingston ’07 in Budapest

“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 abroad.

“[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.”

Denise Patters ’07 poses with a friend in Morocco

“[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.”

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