(Last updated on: 05/04/2020)
To round off my volunteer tourism blog post series I bring to you a guest entry from Claire, author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel. Claire discusses returning home after volunteering abroad and how to reintegrate positively.
Returning Home After Volunteering Abroad
Returning home from volunteering abroad after an immersive volunteer travel experience can be a rollercoaster of emotions. Your first days at home may be as intense as your first days abroad. You may cycle between elation at being back to your “normal” life among your family and friends, and depression as you realize a life experience you had been excited about for so long is now over. One moment you may be bouncing off the walls with excess energy and the next you may feel drained and fatigued. Amongst feelings of helplessness and confusion may arise a deep lucidity and sense of purpose, as you wish to hold on to the things you learned overseas and bring it into your life back home. As intense as these emotions are, they usually don’t last, although you may cycle through them a few times before you begin to feel more settled.
This is what has often been termed as “reverse culture shock,” and everyone experiences it in some form after returning home from a life-changing experience. Recognize the symptoms, be proactive about gathering the support you need and go easy on yourself. Try not to put too many expectations for what home should be like or what youshould be like. Although we can anticipate the feelings that might arise, it doesn’t make them less real. Don’t disregard these emotions as something just to get over – explore them, work through them, find people you can talk about them with, and channel them productively.
To avoid getting lost in emotions or other people’s expectations, and to direct this towards something positive, here are some tips to make the coming home experience as transformative as your time overseas.
Keep processing your experience.
“As far as short term adjustment, I would recommend sitting down one day to just write. Bask in the enjoyment of returning home for a few days to let your mind settle. Then sit down to write.” -Mark Dunn, volunteered in China with Princeton in Asia
People process things differently so work out what works best for you. Some people need time on their own whereas others need to talk it out. Some ideas for this include:
- Writing a reflective journal
- Staying in touch those you knew overseas
- Talking about your thoughts and feelings with a friend
- Calling up another volunteer who you knew from your time abroad
- Going on an early morning walk to have some time with your thoughts
Some volunteer programs offer re-entry retreats or support from an alumni network, so take advantage of those if you have access to them. If not, maybe this is something you could formally or informally initiate.
Practice how and what you will share with friends.
Connecting to with your friends and family and allowing them to share in some of the things you experienced is important for building a bridge between your time overseas and your home life.
One technique is to think about concise and meaningful ways to answer the question: “How was your trip?” See if you can give an answer you are happy with in 2-3 sentences, for example: “I worked with an organization that supports street children in Brazil. It is an extremely complex issue but I learned a lot.” Different people will ask different questions and then you can choose how deep you want to take the conversation based on their interests. That way you know you are engaging them, instead of offering lengthy explanations that are important to you but that the listener can’t relate to.
When you talk about your experiences, try to be fair and balanced instead of “preachy.” One way to do this is to show not tell. For example, choose an anecdote that exemplifies a meaningful issue, or a poignant personal moment from your experience. This can give people a glimpse of your life abroad and even share with them a lesson from your journey without you needing to make this explicit.
Treat this as a new journey.
Don’t expect everything to be the same as you left it. Things will have moved on – and also you may just view familiar scenes differently. Our advice is to treat your homecoming as you treated your travel experience. At Learning Service we talk about cultivating a “learning mindset,” a way of seeing the world where you are open to having your assumptions challenged and learning new ways of thinking and being. If you can look at your experience of “home” with new eyes and a fresh perspective you’ll be better prepared for whatever comes your way.
Use all the cross-cultural adjustment tools you acquired overseas back at home. Being open-minded and non-judgmental, cultivating humility, and continuing to learn are still important practices. Maybe you want to note down observations you make about the culture at home, or identify things you value about the place.
Set yourself goals –and stick to them!
It is very common for people who have been through a culturally-immersive experience to have realizations and to make decisions about the way they want to live in the future. For example, maybe when you were overseas you experienced a different or more sustainable way of consuming, and it has roused a wish for you to cut out your use of single-use plastics. Or maybe you were inspired by a different definition of the word “community” and you have vowed to get to know your neighbors better. Whatever they are, you are likely to feel them very strongly in the first few days after you return, but unless you turn them into practical steps you will be in danger of losing these resolutions.
Our advice is to take the time to identify the goals you have and write them down. Don’t make too many because you will feel overwhelmed by trying to do too much too soon. When you have a list of the changes you want to make that are most important to you, try to break them down into small and actionable steps so the goals don’t seem too big to achieve. For example: “Buy a shampoo bar” might be one tangible action to cut down your plastic usage, or “keep a supply of cloth bags in the car.” These actions that you can start the very next day will ensure that your goals don’t just evaporate as you get back into the daily grind.
Look after your health.
“After being in Namibia for three months, I had a hard time digesting and keeping food down. I was used to chemical-free and unprocessed food. But almost everything in America is processed or has some type of chemical to preserve freshness or enhance taste. The first two weeks were the worst and I actually lost weight.” – Morgan Canup, volunteered in Namibia
Bodies in transition need looking after. Beat jetlag by getting back into a normal sleeping pattern as soon as possible. Even though you may have been craving fast food for months, eat rich foods in moderation and make an effort to eat healthily. Many people feel a little unwell for the first few days after arriving home, and if you have spent a significant period of time abroad, your stomach can have trouble adjusting to the different type of food you are returning to. If you continue to feel unwell, you may want to visit a doctor or take a blood test. Our author, Zahara discovered upon coming home from Uganda that she still had malaria despite being treated for it.
Follow these tips when you return home and hopefully you will be able to find that balance between slotting comfortably back in at home and retaining the things you learned abroad. Welcome home!
Claire Bennett is a co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, which is full of more advice and questions to ask about international volunteering. You can find out more about Learning Service from their website: www.learningservice.info or follow them on Facebook, Twitteror Instagram.