It’s Re-Entry Reality Monday! Each week leading up to our Re-Entry Reality event on March 12, I’ll post a re-entry podcast or blog interview. The goal of these interviews is to share a range of re-entry experiences.
Would you like to share your Re-Entry Reality? Contact me – I’d love to talk with you.
This week’s interview is with Ashley Houston, a globetrotting activist for peace and global citizenship. She’s experienced re-entry multiple times from studying in Japan and as a member of the Peace Boat. Her travels have now taken her to Boston, MA to finish her M.A. in Intercultural Relations at Lesley University.
Ashley, tell about your experience abroad. Where did you go and what did you do?
My first venture abroad was in high school during the summer of 2002 with the Concordia Language Villages Abroad program. This 5-week adventure to Japan was my first real cultural extension outside of the States. We traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, Ibaraki City, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Hiroshima. The program was well organized with structured days that included daily language classes, excursions to local sites, study time, and free time to explore our surroundings. We learned how to use the train systems, were tasked with finding the post office and mailing a letter, and even attended some local high school Japanese classes. From walking around shrines temples to speaking with an atomic bomb survivor to a baseball game and a short homestay, we were immersed in the culture in the various cities we moved around to.
My experience in Japan served as continued fuel for the love of languages and cultures I developed while growing up in language immersion programming. It inspired my wanderlust and the travel bug I still have with me today. Since my time in Japan in high school, I have traveled on short-term programs to South Africa, Costa Rica, Thailand and New Zealand. In college, I did a full semester back in Japan at Kansai Gaidai University. Two years ago, I left my full time job in Academic Advising to travel yet again, this time around the world aboard The Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO. I have determined that once I had a taste of what the rest of the world had to offer I wanted to see more, explore more, and learn more. I now have the goal of spending quality time in every country of the world before I die—a lofty goal maybe, but I try and go abroad at least once a year, finances permitting.
When did the idea of re-entry get on your radar?
I don’t think re-entry was on my radar until college. I was serving as the Study Abroad Advising Assistant for my alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, and was tasked with organizing pre-departure and re-entry events for students. This was the first time the concept stood out to me, and my personal experiences helped me fully understood why it was important to plan these activities.
What was your re-entry experience like?
All of my re-entry experiences were different, as I think is natural. Depending on the context, location, and place in life I was, I had distinct feelings and reactions to coming “home”.
In the case of my first time off U.S. soil, my re-entry experience is still vivid. Driving home from O’Hare airport I recall a few of the hundreds of judgments that flew through my mind—this country is so dirty, we are such incredibly wasteful people, why can’t we figure out how to better organize our cities and utilize space more efficiently?
I remember trying to settle back in and thinking, “Wow, I do not belong here anymore.” I wondered why no one understood what I had been through and why my stories appeared to bore them when I went beyond the basics or didn’t show pictures. I was constantly sad. Sad may even be an understatement for the amount of time I spent in my room crying and not knowing how to express what I was feeling. Upon my return, I constantly wanted to connect with the peers who I had traveled with; surely they were the only ones who understood me now. My parents were grateful for the opportunity I had had, but weren’t sure how to help me fully process my experience. So, after the tears dried, I did something I think is quite common, I immediately began plotting my next adventure abroad.
During my first experience abroad I can’t recall a ton of concerns prior to coming home. I remember being excited to see my family, share my stories and photos, and eat cheese. I think my main anxiety centered on the friends I had made and the language I learned. I was worried about keeping in touch with the group I had gotten so close to. We came from all over the United States and this was before cell phones were in everyone’s back pocket. I was also afraid I would lose the improvements I had made in my Japanese without being immersed in the culture. I don’t think I necessarily had any specific expectations at the time or thought about it too hard about returning. But, my unease about communicating with new friends and maintaining my language skills was a reality. I didn’t expect to feel more culture “shocked” upon returning to my home country than I did heading overseas.
What do you know *now* about re-entry that you wish you’d known earlier?
As a current graduate student of Intercultural Relations at Lesley University and Melibee Global hive member, I feel like re-entry has been a buzzword the last few years, and rightfully so. Within the field of Education Abroad I think we have a ways to go in better preparing students to travel overseas and supporting them upon return. There is certainly a lack of resources out there and I look forward to this area growing in the near future.
I feel like I’m getting to know more about re-entry via recent articles and some of the new toolkits that have recently come out, but each time I return from an experience abroad I discover something new. I don’t think you can prepare for re-entry or what you will discover with each new return home. But, I think that’s what I like most about travel, it’s unpredictability. The surprise and spontaneity of the return experience has been no different for me. Each time I have to figure out a new way to process what I have been through, and many times in the past I never did. Writing this has been a therapeutic experience for me. Even years after my time abroad in high school, this is the first time I have really assessed my feelings and reminisced via specific questions. Taking the time to go back and review our group blog, the photos, and my journal was moving. Remembering to take time to process is key!
What tips do you have for others who are about to go through re-entry?
I’m not any type of authority on re-entry to be giving advice, especially because I feel that everyone’s experience and processing is so different, but realizing you are not alone is a big one. Find the support you need and the outlet that works best for you to reflect on the experience. I don’t think there’s any single way to prepare for what may come, but it’s crucial to recognize reflection as a pivotal part of reintegration. It could happen right away, weeks later, or even years. Not surprisingly, writing about it and talking with others who have studied abroad is a great outlet!
This one is just for fun: If re-entry were a food what would it be? Why?
Re-entry is a bag of hearty trail mix. It’s a different mix of feelings and components based on your cravings. Maybe today it’s a lil nutty and full of cashews and almonds-crunchy and hard to swallow. Maybe it’s chocolatey and rich with discovery. Maybe it’s full of raisins, which you don’t like, and you try and get rid of. Each handful might be a surprise, or you might pick out the pieces and weed through them one by one. Either way, it’s nutrient rich for your body and helping you fuel up to continue forward in your journey.
Thanks for sharing your Re-Entry Reality, Ashley!
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