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Sense of community abroad aids student adjustment
Ellie Duff chose Webster University for its study abroad program. However, when she first studied abroad in high school, Duff said she wanted to come back home after a couple months.
“I called my mom and told her I wanted to come home,” Duff said. “I skyped with her at 2 a.m. French time … I was telling her she had to buy me a ticket to come home because I hated France and I hated my host family and I didn’t have any friends and I was so depressed.”
Her mom reminded her that she wanted to study abroad since she was eight years old. She told Duff to give it one more month, then decide if she wanted to go home.
Duff, a sophomore and the head student worker in Webster’s Office of Study Abroad, studied in France for 10 months her junior year of high school. She lived with three different host families while there.
Duff said her homesickness was a little complicated. Her father passed away six weeks before she left for France.
Duff said about half of her homesickness came from the loss of her dad. The two had planned and talked about Duff studying there for years.
“It was tough when he died because it was like I was betraying him sort of,” Duff said. “I didn’t take opportunities that I should have because I was depressed and homesick.”
Duff didn’t join clubs and go out with friends when she first arrived in France. She said her reclusiveness kept her from making initial connections with people, and therefore hurt her experience.
She started hanging out with French natives and walked around the town she stayed in to get over her homesickness, Duff said. She kept herself busy.
“I wasn’t thinking about all of these things I was missing in America. It was fine because I had all of these other things in France,” Duff said. “Now I’m homesick for France.”
Duff said homesickness is often the second stage of the four stages of culture shock.
“You start realizing that you’re in this foreign place and you start getting homesick because you’re away from your family and your friends and your own language,” Duff said.
She said everyone who goes through culture shock does so at different paces.
There are four stages of culture shock:
1. The honeymoon phase: Everything is new and exciting.
2. Irritability phase: where homesickness comes in.
3. Adjustment and adaptability phase: enjoy aspects of new culture
4. Bicultural competence: can more easily transition between cultures
The honeymoon phase lasted about a month for Duff. Her homesickness phase lasted two to three months. Then, she said she became depressed.
“I missed my friends and I missed my family and I missed America, cheeseburgers and stuff like that because that’s what I was used to,” Duff said.
Duff said her family often hosted exchange students while she was growing up. She grew familiar with different cultures. Because of that, she said she has always been interested in going abroad. Duff said she plans to study abroad in her time at Webster.
Western culture is everywhere now, Duff said. She believes students studying abroad may have difficulty getting away from American culture.
“We’re imposing on a lot of different cultures. It’s easier for students to miss America because they see it everywhere around them and then they aren’t there,” Duff said. “I think a lot of students struggle with homesickness because of that.”
Hailey Kaufman, a junior from Nashville, Tenn., studied abroad at Webster’s Thailand campus last spring. She said she was so happy in Thailand that she didn’t feel homesick. She said people, made all the difference in her experience abroad.
“I leaned so heavily on the people I was there with,” Kaufman said. “You get pretty close to people who you otherwise would never have known or gotten close to just by common experience.”
Before arriving in Thailand, Kaufman said she was scared to study abroad. She decided to go because she knew it was an opportunity she wanted to take advantage of. She said being with other American students in a westernized town made the experience less terrifying.
“When I thought about studying abroad I always pictured myself getting lost somewhere and not being able to talk to anyone or read anything,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman said she did feel slightly homesick a couple times while abroad. The first time she felt homesick was when she arrived in Thailand.
“I had no idea what was in store,” Kaufman said. “I had a little panic freak-out. ‘ Oh God, it’s going to be so hard.’ I was already missing my family and my boyfriend.”
Halfway through her stay, Kaufman said she hit a point where she wasn’t loving her time there anymore. Her computer hard drive crashed and she had to navigate getting it fixed in a foreign country. She said in the end she constantly surprised herself with how much she was able to figure out.
“I think people were getting as much as they could get out if it (study abroad),” Kaufman said. “A lot of us weren’t ready to go home.”