Shock Waves: The (Reverse) Culture Shock Experience

Reverse culture shock: “The shock suffered by some people when they return home after a [period of time] overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.” (definition by

Culture shock resides on a spectrum of adjustment to new experiences or, in the case of reverse culture shock, returning to “the previously familiar” that now “has become unfamiliar.”  Anyone spending a solid amount of time abroad has fallen somewhere on this spectrum from “complete and immediate (re)acceptance of new/previous culture” to “OMG where am I? What have I done? Take me back NOW.”

Time to get metaphorical.

Think of culture shock as an earthquake. For some first-time travelers abroad, they find themselves directly in the epicenter of the quake, blasted with the strongest waves as soon as they land in unfamiliar territory. This is totally fine. The people in the epicenter will probably have the most challenges to overcome and, therefore, may get so much more out of their time abroad as they overcome these challenges and learn more about themselves in the process. Granted, I’ve heard stories of people who absolutely can’t handle the extreme shock and new-found independence and end up going home in the middle of their abroad experience. If you find yourself in that situation, there are plenty of resources to help you in your new country. Deep breaths. Take it slow. Ask for help and talk it out. You’re strong and you can make it through while having the time of your life!

Mid-range shock zone (the roller-coaster).
Step 1: You’ve made it. You’re more fascinated (albeit overwhelmed) by your new surroundings than anything. You don’t even think of what you’re missing back home, you just want to see what this new place has to offer.
Step 2: A couple weeks in and after talking to your parents & some friends back home you’re feeling a tinge of nostalgia for your “old life.” You wonder what you would be doing back on campus if you weren’t halfway around the world.
Step 3: School. Party. Travel. Repeat. You’re accustomed to your new routine and enjoying the heck out of life (even if you’re constantly sleep-deprived). Class during the week, society socials & international student parties at night, and traveling on the weekends. This isn’t normal life? It is to you now!
Step 4: The bittersweet mix of emotions including the excitement of going home to see your family & friends and sadness of leaving the place you now call your second home.
Step 5: It takes quite a bit of time to fully readjust back to your old routine at your home university but you still have the memories of fabulous adventures in foreign countries dancing through your daydreams.

You are faaaaarrr from the epicenter when you arrive, nothing phases you. You adjust like a boss and roll with the punches. New currency? No big. Language barrier? Eh, you’ll get used to it. Extreme amount of daily walking? Good, you were wanting to exercise more anyway. Your travels will take you all over the region, avoiding the “mainstream” countries and cities. Who needs romanticized Paris when you’ve got mystifying Budapest? You meet awesome friends and document every noteworthy moment with the perfect photograph. You love this feeling of utter freedom and independence. You’re disappointed when it comes time to leave but you knew it wasn’t going to last forever. The real shocks roll in after a few weeks of being home when life really starts coming at you at a much faster pace. You have to come back to the realizations that your time isn’t just spent on what you want anymore; you’ve got bosses, professors, and parents to report to on a weekly (if not daily) basis. You reminisce on your adventures and long for that freedom back but accept that isn’t your life anymore. So, you take charge and lead like you always have, but this time you’ve got your past escapades & desire to return charging your every move toward success.

Now, let’s get real.

Personally, I fall on the spectrum somewhere between mid-range and aftershocks. I generally go with the flow and adapt fairly quickly to new situations. My first 3 weeks of my Early Start program flew by and during that time I was all-Ireland all the time. As that program was ending and my friends back home began classes, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on key events from sorority recruitment to home football games (even though our team is terrible). Once I started traveling more on weekends and really getting into a rhythm with my own classes, all of that stayed in the back of my mind with my focus on experiencing these new cultures and seeing the world with my awesome new friends. Saying goodbye to Cork was bittersweet but being one of the last to leave really helped me to accept I was going home and easily move on like I had when I left the States behind 4.5 months earlier.

I knew I’d have quite the transition returning to Iowa State with classes filling my days and sorority events taking over my nights, especially now that I would have the added responsibility of presidency. Not until these past few weeks back on campus did I realize how big of a jump I had to take to get back into the swing of my old routine. I’ve always been involved (some may say over-committed) so I thought my “muscle memory”  would kick in and I’d be set to go, similar to remembering how to drive in America after getting used to seeing cars on the left side of the road. So, if we’re being honest, I may have over-estimated by abilities to readjust. My semester abroad gave me time I’ve never had to focus on and not be responsible to anyone but myself. During the bulk of the semester, I had no homework nor exams to worry over and no social obligations except for the ones I sought out myself. I had so much free time during the week that for the first time I felt like the stereotypical college student binge watching episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix every weeknight. That is obviously nothing like the non-stop semester I’m in now.

Luckily, my study abroad experience taught me valuable lessons about myself as well as interacting with people of all different backgrounds. Additionally, I have a fabulous support group in my family, friends from high school, and friends and staff here at Iowa State. I am committed to learning from this reverse culture shock experience and to continue to grow and learn about myself in the aftershocks of my semester abroad. I’m still working my way through this uphill battle but, if there’s one thing I learned from living in Ireland, the view from the top is always worth it.  


“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Traditional Irish blessing


2 thoughts on “Shock Waves: The (Reverse) Culture Shock Experience

  1. Beautiful post Alyssa! You are able to articulate what you have experienced by studying abroad, which is often difficult for students to do!


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