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Supporting Returnees

There are many ways that you can show your support for study abroad returnees when they return to the Northwestern campus after a term abroad. Their study abroad experience will continue long after they leave their host country, and by showing an interest in their new perspectives you can facilitate this ongoing reflection and learning.

  • Ask students about their time abroad during their advising sessions, before/after class, during office hours, etc.  This will not only help them feel that someone is interested, but will also help you learn more about the opportunities for students abroad.
  • Incorporate returnee perspectives into your class discussions and assignments.  Students who have studied abroad often have a unique insight into a culture and region.  Bring that perspective into the classroom!
  • Attend returnee events hosted by the Study Abroad Office in the fall and winter to welcome recent study abroad students back to campus.  This is a great opportunity for you to hear more about the experiences students had abroad and show your support.  Check the Study Abroad Office calendar for more details.
  • Encourage another international experience. Study abroad students are great candidates for going abroad again, and there are various capacities in which this can happen. Several offices on campus, including the Study Abroad Office, Office of Fellowships, and University Career Services can help guide students about future opportunities abroad.  For more information about offices on campus involved in international opportunities, visit the Northwestern University Global Opportunities site.

Reverse culture shock

Students often face adjustment issues when they return to campus from studying abroad, known as "reverse culture shock."  Some of the symptoms of reverse culture shock include depression and/or frustration with friends, family, and campus culture. 

If you notice that a student is having difficulty readjusting, it's often helpful to do the following:

  • Encourage the student to come in and talk with you about their re-entry into Northwestern
  • Impress upon them the fact that this is a normal process to go through and actually shows that they have had a meaningful experience abroad
  • Suggest that they attend events organized specifically for returnees where they will have the chance to process their experiences with their peers and get some tips about handling readjustment issues
  • Refer them to our online resources for returnees, Reverse Culture Shock and Re-entry Strategies and the "When You Return" section of Mental Health Abroad

when to seek help

The new challenges that accompany re-entry from study abroad often lead to symptoms that are typical of depression: sadness, lack of energy, irritability, loneliness, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. These feelings are normal and occur for short periods of time as students adjust.

But when “the blues” continue for a prolonged period of time – several weeks – and begin to seriously interfere with a student’s ability to study or interact with others, the student may be dealing with clinical depression or other serious emotional issues and may need professional mental health intervention.

The chart below outlines some common signs that a student may be experiencing emotional distress and may need additional support.

Signs of distress

Behavioral changes

  • Decline in the quality of work, assignments not completed
  • Frequent absences from class
  • Inability to sit through classes
  • Disruptive behavior in classes
  • Repeated requests for special accommodations such as extensions or postponed examinations
  • Turning in coursework that has suicidal or homicidal themes
  • Impaired speech or thought patterns

Physical changes

  • Marked change in physical appearance and personal hygiene
  • Dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Chronic tiredness, headaches, gastrointestinal problems without a medical explanation
  • Change in sleep patterns: insomnia, sleeping too much, not needing sleep
  • Disordered eating: restricting, bingeing, purging, over-exercise
  • Panic attacks; overwhelming anxiety

Personal changes

  • Extreme sadness and tearfulness
  • Severe depression
  • Irritability
  • Hostility
  • Marked anxiety
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Withdrawn
  • Hyperactive
  • Excessive dependency on others
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion, indecisiveness
  • Much more talkative than usual, sentences are tangential or incoherent

Safety risk changes

  • Expressions of hopelessness, powerlessness or worthlessness
  • Verbal statements or notes that have a suicidal or homicidal tone to them
  • Expressions of concerns about death or life after death
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
  • Violent threats against others
  • Out of control behavior

Reverse culture shock can be exacerbated by other risk factors that might be present in a student’s life, such as poor self esteem; lack of close, supportive friends or family ties; death of a close friend or family member; sexual assault, sexual harassment; break-up of a relationship; poor academic performance; or substance abuse issues.

assisting a struggling student

  • Connect the student to a mental health professional. If the student is on campus, contact Counseling & Psychological Services.
  • Offer emotional support. Check in with the student; see how he/she is feeling/adjusting. However, do not take on the sole responsibility for helping. Gently insist that professional help is also needed.
  • Encourage Activity. Engage the student in conversations and social activities.
  • Take suicidal ideation seriously.
  • Follow up. 

Adapted from Best Practices in Addressing Mental Health Issues Affecting Education Abroad Participants; NAFSA, 2006, SAFETI Newsletter, and the Center for Global Education.