What to Do When Your Student Comes Home a Different Person

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coming home
The countdown has dwindled (to your great joy, to your kid’s great despair) and the end of the Gap Year is now upon us! You look up from the kitchen table to see your child on the couch and it’s like a year hasn’t passed. But it did, and while your child might look the same more or less (save for that new tattoo?!), their mind and soul might be a little different.

Getting to know that new person takes time. We know you love them, but how do you set both guardians and child up for success when they come back and they aren’t quite like you remember.

Before They Come Home

Establish open lines of communication. Before the Gap Year, during, and especially after; it’s important that you’re able to “talk it out” with your kid. If you have expectations for their participation in, or attendance to, certain family affairs, let them know in advance. Invite them to help plan meet up’s or other obligations – your kid will appreciate that you value their input. Ask them, as well, what they’d like to do in their first few weeks home. Discussing what these first few weeks will look like can help mitigate any misunderstandings.

Discuss curfew, chores, and house rules. Your kid just experienced a whirlwind of independence – anywhere from choosing their own meals (and meal times) to deciding when they want to leave the house and when they don’t. That degree of independence can be liberating, but you must discuss with your child if self-government holds up in your household.

  • Can significant others stay the night?
  • Is drinking permitted?
  • Should curfews be abided by?

Instead of deciding top-down how their life back home after their Gap Year is going to look, have a dialogue about what would be best for both parties.

Remind them you love them. When you come back to a life that feels entirely different, with a new sense of self and new life goals, insecurities can be quick to bubble up.

  • “What if they don’t like me now?”
  • “What if I don’t fit in anymore?”
  • “How am I going to end that relationship?”

These questions can lead to much vulnerability. Tell your kid, time and again, that you love them for who they are, who they are becoming, and for who they were. Prepare a soft landing for them in this tumultuous period of their lives.

The First Weeks Home

Transition your “role” as parent – not as a lawmaker, but as an adviser. Your kid will be navigating a LOT of emotions as they return home, not least of which is their newfound self-sufficiency and relative “adulthood.” As a parent, it’s critical that you offer support during this period and a backboard of advice. You can talk about the gambit – their life abroad, their next life plans, college, grades, relationships, friendships. But ask out of genuine curiosity and with a willingness to offer objectivity or new perspectives, not to mine for reasons to chastise or punish your kid. This will help establish healthy boundaries as your wee one is growing up.

Remember: you might be different, too.

Just as your kid coming back might not feel like the same ol’ Timmy or Susie, you might feel different to them, too. Maybe having an empty-nest shed new insights on your personal life, maybe you’ve offered forgiveness to someone you swore you never would, maybe you love Pilates or the Pittsburgh Pirates now. Whatever it is, keep in mind that you’re also a dynamic individual and your kid might have a hard time adjusting to your “new you.”

Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Maintain Old Habits

If your child comes back a vegetarian, don’t make their favorite ribs for a “Welcome home!” meal. Maybe your child has expressed concerns about their lethargy, their apathy, or their inability to focus on getting important things taken care of. Rather than tempt them to join you for a last-minute movie spree, encourage them to maintain and actively pursue their goals.

Remind them you love them! This is just good advice all-around, and worth mentioning again.

When your child returns from abroad, they’ll be experiencing a heavy dose of reverse culture shock. While it’s a difficult psychological experience for your kid, it can also do a number on Mom and Dad (or other guardians). Be patient with your child as they figure out what their life back home looks like after all of their time away. Their new self will be your favorite version of themselves before you know it!

“So, How Was Your Gap Year?” Answers to the Inevitable Question

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In a nutshell: don’t default to the easy, generic responses of “good,” “great,” or “fine.” We’re glad it was all of those things, but you owe it to yourself – and the lessons you learned – AND the people you met along the way – to tell your communities back home even more.

And not just the pretty stuff, either. It wasn’t always sunshine and daisies and photo-worthy moments. There were hard times. You saw a lot of stuff. Complicated stuff. And you’re still trying to figure it out. Those are the meaty details that your family and friends deserve to know – not only because you might be their only outlet to first-hand stories in extremely foreign places, but also to allow them to support you along your post-Gap Year journey.

Here’s some basic advice to get you through that awkward, cringe-worthy (but inevitable) question that will pop out of all your friends’ and family members’ mouths: how was it?

Before the Question

Memorize a few different versions of your response

You might end up being asked while waiting in line at Starbucks, while having a heart to heart with your best friend, or while checking in with your Grandma. Mentally prepare multiple versions of your go-to response, but be cognizant of including more than a simple, “It was great” kind of thing.

Plan for:

A 30 second response for those quickie convos.
“Thanks so much for asking. I grew so much through the experience, and was really surprised by X and Y. I would do it again in a heartbeat if only to hang out with my homestay mother Z one more time – her life was pretty challenging and fascinating, but I couldn’t believe how much A pervades the culture. Now I’m looking forward to and I’m already planning my return trip!”

A 10 minute response for the longer-than-normal but not quite a deep-dive convos.

Example topics to cover:

  • What you wish you knew before you went
  • Which skills you developed on accident
  • The challenges of returning home
  • What most surprised you by the country/-ies you visited
  • What you hope to incorporate into your life back home
  • Which relationships had the most impact on your life and why?

A 30 minute response for the really good listeners


  • Creating a slideshow of favorite photos and offering some context as you filter through them
  • Playing a short video clip that depicts an aspect of your life abroad
  • Incorporating the above suggestions but sharing more details

Be sure to protect individuals’ privacy or identities if you are speaking to specific experiences.

Put together some quick photos to show others

Pick your favorite photos and sub-categorize them into their own folder on your smart phone. You might even kick it old school and have them printed (on actual paper)! Carry them in your wallet or your pursue to pull out if the opportunity presents itself. Consider creating a powerpoint presentation of your favorite snapshots to pass along digitally to friends and family.

Choose the stories you tell & filter for audience

Another proactive way to thoughtfully prepare for these conversations is to suss out which details you feel comfortable sharing with strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family. Your friends might love the story of that time you went on a date with a Chinese boy (and the hilarious text message conversations that ensued), but your teacher or professor might not find those anecdotes quite as funny (or charming).

To that end, you might want to focus more on what you learned scholastically when catching up with your academic advisor, but emphasize your personal growth more with your significant other, or aunt. Mentally differentiate which stories you’ll share with which audiences and go from there.

In the Moment

Check the time

Is this a passing conversation (like a bump-in at the grocery store or while en-route to class?) or is this a conversation that you can dig a little deeper into? Consider how much time you have to divulge the details.

Make sure their eyes don’t glaze over

Some people only ask the question to be polite. You can tell pretty quickly when an individual isn’t so interested in actually hearing the dirty details of your trip abroad. Their eyes will glaze over, they’ll lose eye contact, they’ll ask perfunctory questions, their body language will tell the tale. When you see the conversation moving this way, consider asking them a question in response to re-engage them.

Some ideas include:

  • What do you know about ?
  • Have you ever traveled abroad? What was your favorite part?
  • What would you do differently the next time you travel?
  • Where in the world do you want to go and can I come too?!

It’s important to keep the conversation a mutual dialogue rather than them listening to a dragging-on message about all the fun you had without them (even if you do focus your response on deeper, more meaningful topics versus the typical touristy play-by-play).

Balance fun quips with deeper takeaways

While your family and friends will be excited to learn you rafted the River Nile and swam with the fishies in the Great Barrier Reef, you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice by making these tales the focal point of your conversations.

One: It dumbs down your experience.

It detracts from your overall Gap Year goals – which was to learn more about the world in a meaningful and impactful way.

Three: You rob the individual of learning new perspectives on the lives of people that might be far away physically, but are pretty close emotionally/mentally/spiritually.

Add value to the conversation and avoid shallow discourse. Share your new truths and your new goals. Share your journey to clarity about said truths and goals. Recount the morning you woke up with a chicken in your bed, but remind listeners of how much we really take for granted in our own country, too.

With these tips in mind, you’re going to NAIL those conversations – and both parties will walk away enriched by the experience.

Reverse Culture Shock: Why Does Everything Feel Weird Now?

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Why Does Everything Feel Weird Now?

You’re back. It’s been a whirlwind. Your mom and dad greeted you tearfully at the airport (only this time they were happy tears instead of sad ones). Grandpa swept you up in a big bear hug. Your friends went berserk at the sight of you, and you’ve had a wonderful time catching up, laughing, stuffing your face, and generally settling back into your old, familiar, friendly community.

But then you wake up one morning, and it hits you: Did that gap year really happen? Was it all a dream? Did you actually travel thousands of miles – alone – in search of new places and a new sense of self? What happened to that sense of self? Is s/he still around? Do I even belong here anymore?

Bam. Reverse culture shock.

What Does Reverse Culture Shock Mean For You?

Much like the flood of emotions you felt throughout your transition to life abroad (“culture shock”), a similar psychological response occurs when you return home. Sure, it’s not “new” in the traditional sense. But you’re returning with new eyes and new realizations, and seeing the “old” can be jarring (to put it nicely).

Everything feels weird because you’re experience reverse culture shock. The good news is that you’ll get through it and wind up feeling happier, more satisfied, and more self-assured than ever before. The semi-bummer news (or exciting, if you’re one of those, gung-ho, super-invested in self-development types!) is that it’s going to take a bit of work. But with the right mindset and a little self-love, you’ll be whistling a reintegration tune in no time.

What Does Reverse Culture Shock Mean for Your Friendships?

It can mean a lot of different things. Some Gap Year students return to their former besties and pick things up right where they left off. You gab, share stories, and start making more memories – together – immediately.

But what if you come back from your program and are unsure of your friend group?
What if the distance made you realize that you want to surround yourself with different types of people? What if you don’t really want to pursue a friendship or two anymore?

This can be tough to navigate for anyone at any stage of life. The first step is to be honest. It can be hard, but you owe it to that person – and your history – to be upfront with them. Explain that you’re focusing on yourself or want to engage in new hobbies or groups that will make you less available. Explain that you’re wrestling with a lot of new feelings and emotions and want to do it on your own.

It’ll hurt and it’ll be hard, but it is essential that you are true to your newfound awareness. Your friend group can become the easiest, slipperiest slope into old habits and bad behavior (you know, the kind that you’re trying to shake now).

What Does Reverse Culture Shock Mean for Your Future Education, or Career Prospects?

You took a Gap Year because you wanted to better understand yourself and the way the world works. You wanted to polish your resume and return to school with a renewed sense of clarity about your passion and purpose. You

That’s all fine and dandy, but what good are those intentions if there is no follow through?

If you choose to revert to your old self instead of pushing through your reverse culture shock period, all of your experiences will be, well, moot. While no opportunity is one wasted if you garnered something of value from it, it is your responsibility to yourself to follow through with becoming the man or woman you decided to be.

This translates to your future job and academic prospects. You won’t be able to morph your experiences into leverage for competitive courses or positions if you didn’t do the work of fusing the lessons from your life abroad into your life back home.

How to be the Master of Reverse Culture Shock

Resolve to be Patient

Remember how long it took you get over that break-up with the one you thought was the one?
You’d wake up some mornings determined to be #overit, but then you’d find yourself tirelessly scrolling their feeds some two hours later. But eventually, those stalk sessions became fewer and further between and eventually, you actually meant it when you said “I hope s/he’s happy.”

To the same extent – while it seems dark and scary now, you will get through this. You might not wake up tomorrow feeling 100% integrated and ready to go. You might not wake up in a month feeling it. But little by little, you will overcome these emotional obstacles and feel “at home” again – or at least at peace with being at home.

Feed Your Wild Side

You’ve had so many adventures packed into your recent months. No, literally. You’ve had SO many adventures. Stopping all that fun cold-turkey can feel disruptive and challenging to your ability to be content at home. Now it’s up to you: you can either whine and live in the past, or you can adopt a killer, intrepid mentality to accompany you through life.

Look for new adventures in your old town or university. Join new clubs. Meet new people. Take a new way home. Go on micro-adventures – a concept my dear friend Avy once imparted on me. Weekends away, day trips to new towns, camping in your backyard… all viable microadventures, and all within your reach. Continue to nurture your need for adventure!

Stay in Touch

You made a ton of great connections, relationships, and friendships while on your Gap Year – don’t fall victim to the lazy “it’s too hard to keep in touch” attitude that pervades our lives when we’re stuck in routine. Set up Skype dates. Kick it old school and send a letter. Print photos and send them to your homestay family. Write reviews of your program provider and volunteer to talk with potential participants. Use Oovoo when you can’t just chat one-on-one. Ask your program leaders for guidance, advice, recommendation letters.

You’ll get out of the relationship what you put in, and each of these outlets will be incredible resources for you as you continue to process your Gap Year, your re-entry period, and your next steps.

Part and parcel with your grand adventure, this stage of the experience is just as important and integral to your overall success as when you had your boots on the ground abroad. Really sit in the discomfort and disorient of these days. Reflect on how far you’ve come, and where you’re going now that you’re equipped with these incredible experiences.

Photo Credit: Ali Naqi

6 Ways to Keep the Gap Year Spirit Alive

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Whether you’re still shaking out the dust from your pack or your passport has been safely stored for a few weeks, it’s never too soon (or too late) to think about ways you can integrate your Gap-Year-self into your life back home.

For some, coming back home is the ultimate challenge in “walking the walk” and “talking the talk” – the walk and the talk that you found while on your Gap Year. It makes no sense to have all of these new insights about yourself only to tuck them away and hide them after you’ve returned home. Now’s the time for you to step up, to integrate your realizations into your daily life, and continue moving towards progression as an individual (because let’s face it, there’s always more to learn).

Remember the adventuresome, fun-loving sides of your personality that shone bright during your Gap Year? Here’s how to keep that spirit alive, even long after your travel posts pop up on your On This Day notification.

Join the Fight for Social Justice!

Ask around your university campus for causes or organizations that work to eradicate the human rights issues you are recently passionate for. An example organization is Valparaiso University’s Social Action Leadership Team (SALT). Finding communities of impassioned young adults will spur further civic engagement and action – a perfect environment for a post-Gap-Year heart like yours.

Find other cool clubs

Language learning groups, meet up’s for those who speak the same second language as you, organizations that help international students or immigrants integrate smoothly into their new city or school, clubs to help ESL learners in town. They’re ALL fair game and ALL awesome.

Just because you’re not an Asian American doesn’t mean you can’t join Asian American Student Association at the University of Oklahoma. Use it as a means for learning more about their struggles, their joys, their celebrations – what it means to navigate life in the US with a different background. The same can be applied for any identity group that you are an advocate/ally for but don’t share in that sub-identity per se.

In general, clubs are a low-key, awesome strategy for connecting with other folks who appreciate culture – don’t be afraid of feeling foolish. Remember the fear and nerves you had when you started your Gap Year? And how awesome it turned out? Same applies here. #KaboshTheComfortZone

Volunteer more!

Beyond the satisfaction of knowing you helped brighten another’s day, you know firsthand that some of life’s best lessons are hidden amongst learning experiences in situations you’d otherwise never find yourself in. Actively seek more community service projects in your university or hometown, on campus or beyond campus limits.

We challenge you to think broadly about groups of people or causes that you aren’t familiar with, and using volunteer hours as a way to educate yourself, connect with others, and give back in a meaningful way. These volunteer projects might not be as “exotic” as those on your Gap Year, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful or give them any less of an impact. Find local resources through United Way,

You’re a Global Citizen. Act Like It!

How does being a global citizen manifest itself into action in your daily life? Here are just a handful of creative ideas:

  • Read national news sources as well as foreign
  • Stay up to date on causes you care about worldwide
  • Find a heart-centered mentor who cares about global issues
  • Consider environmental repercussions of your consumption, lifestyle, transportation choices, etc.
  • “Like” Facebook pages from multiple political and ethnic perspectives
  • Support fair trade, local, and grassroots organizations over franchises and chains whenever possible
  • Consciously read books and articles from opposing viewpoints to sharpen your opinions
  • Talk up travel – the “more than touristing” kind – with anyone and everyone who will listen
  • Advocate for the marginalized people you met while abroad, whether through local government initiatives, online forums, etc.
  • Respect and value diversity of thought!
  • Be willing to act to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place

It’s a title that bears responsibility. It’s our hope that your Gap Year made you a more aware global citizen, and that you’re willing to step forward towards incorporating those values into your daily life. But this takes work  – especially at the beginning – but it will bring you the kind of satisfaction that you assumed was unique to your Gap Year.

Share Your Stories With Friends

Don’t let your shared experiences with those who look, think, talk, act, drive… the list goes on… differently than you stay a thing of the past. It’s up to YOU to share their stories, and bring their realities to the forefront of the individuals in your life who struggle to empathize with the daily lives of those in other countries. Use photos, use anecdotes, use formal presentations. Sing songs or share memories. Highlight the good parts as well as the struggles.

Only through educating people within our own communities about those who live in communities outside our own will we be able to effectively move forward as a global community at large. It’s your job – nay, your duty – to sensitively share others’ stories.

Brainstorm Ways to Travel Again!

Let’s face it – there’s just something cool about being thrown into the unknown and left to stand on your own two feet. Travel has a way of jolting our senses in ways that the familiar just can’t. If you want to keep your intrepid self in the present rather than the past, why not start planning your next grand adventure?

Open up that big world map, tack it to the wall, lay down and just daydream. Think of new activities and experiences you want to have. Prioritize those travel goals. Then pop open your laptop and get to work on transforming those daydreams to reality (don’t worry, 12+ open tabs at once is the norm!).

Regardless if you travel one hour south or twelve hours north, whether by plane, train, or automobile, whether with passport in tow or to the town over, the spirit of adventure can be found around every corner. Here’s the secret: it’s a mindset. Heck, you don’t even need to travel to capture the spirit – find ways to be excited and optimistic about your daily life (who knows what incredibly memorable experience you’ll have on this typical Tuesday, anyway?!). Capture that special courage that you discovered on your Gap Year – and convert it to an equally audacious sense of self no matter where you land.

Planning Your Return Home at the End of Your Gap Year

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We know you’re too busy having fun and soaking up every adventure-filled moment of your Gap Year experience to even begin considering your days abroad are numbered, but wise students know that preparing to transition to life back home requires some advance prep. Sure, you’re excited to reunite with loved ones and stuff your face with breakfast tacos – not to mention taking a long shower with (gasp!) a loofa – but there’s much more to returning home than these simple pleasures.

There are, often, unfamiliar emotional and psychological responses to anticipate. Reverse culture shock and a grasping for the past are not unusual to feel. You might even begin to wonder if your Gap Year was nothing but a dream.

Here’s my best advice for winding down your time abroad in a way that sets you up for long-term success.

Take Some Photos

Then, take some more.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve adapted greatly to your life abroad. Remember the wonderment on your days strolling the streets of your Gap Year destination, how everything was interesting, new, and different? Now you might scurry by without giving a second thought. This usually indicates that the strange has transformed to the ordinary, and you’re no longer seeing your new destination with visitor’s eyes.

But, try to hold tight to that wonderment. Record as much of your everyday life as you can, especially those ordinary people, places, and things you want to remember.

Say a Culturally Appropriate Goodbye to Your New Friends (& Family)

We have a hunch you’ve made some special bonds on your Gap Year. Be sure to acknowledge these special relationships by carving out time to say goodbye in a way that feels good – and in a way that is culturally appropriate. Hugs, notes, handshakes, a hand on the shoulder. A polite grasping of your right fist with a slight tilt of the head in a bow.

Collect contact info, too – Facebook CAN be more than a soundboard for the minute details of your life. The ability to keep in touch regularly with long distance friends is one of the great benefits on this giant social network.

Mentally Prepare Yourself

Think about how returning home is both similar and different from going abroad – you’ll be entering a new culture again, albeit a more familiar one. But since you’ll be coming home with new perspectives and a new sense of self, you might be surprised how your old haunts feel a little foreign.

Brace yourself for an adjustment period – feeling comfortable at home won’t happen overnight. Some things, even your friends and family, might seem strange (or unsettling).

Get Ready For Some Cultural-Catch Up

While I largely consider my time away from the US during the height of Angry Birds a blessing, it’s naive of returnee travelers to think that they didn’t miss out on SOMETHING important while abroad – many linguistic, social, political, economic, entertainment, and current event topics may be unfamiliar to you.

In reality, laughing with friends and family over the fads and (seemingly) “big deals” that happened while you were gone is a great way not only to reconnect, but also to reflect on the transience of all these trends.

Avoid Judgment & the Comparison Game

Before traveling abroad, you probably read countless articles and advice around the theme of having an “open mind.” The same rings true for when you return home. You might be quick to make snap judgments about people and behaviors back home given your newly “enlightened” sense of being. While we don’t mean to undermine the powerful realizations you’ve undergone while abroad, it’s important not to diminish the lives of your friends and family back home.

Instead, cultivate sensitivity. Patience, reflection, and a sense of love for everyone’s journey are a good remedy for judgement. Be genuinely interested in what your friends and family have been doing while you’ve been abroad.

Making comparisons between cultures and nations is a perfectly normal response to your experiences; however, Gap Year returnees must be careful not to be seen as too critical of home or too lavish in praise of things foreign.

Lean on Your Support Networks

Now is not the time to cry into a bowl of rice while watching Mulan and longing for the good ol’ days abroad in China. Instead, commit to processing your entire experience in the company of those who also value international experiences or who have been transformed by life abroad.

Your Gap Year friends are a good resource, but look further into your communities, too. Find groups on campus. Connect with travelers in your home town. The networks are there, you just need to find them, put on that brave smile (like when you boarded that plane abroad!), and be vulnerable as you navigate the up’s and down’s of life back home.

Give yourself permission to ease into the transition.

It’s not an easy process, but it’s an important one – perhaps the most important phase of your entire experience abroad. Now’s the time for you to make good on your commitments as a global citizen and put into practice the lessons you’ve learned while overseas. Hop to it!

Photo Credit: Binyamin Mellish