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Life After a Gap Year Abroad: What to Expect & How to Deal with It

Like most others traveling to volunteer, study, intern, teach, and live abroad, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no plan to stay for a year, nor did I have a plan to return home at any set date. I figured I would take it day by day and see where life took me. And boy did it take me–from the common routine I was so used to back home to a world of spontaneity and adventure; my life crossed paths with people I would fall in love with quickly, places I had only seen in my dreams, and exhilarating adventures I would have never thought I would experience. But I wasn’t prepared for it to end, and when it did, it wasn’t as expected.

The day finally came when my bags were packed, and I bid farewell to the people I’d considered family. I vowed we’d stay in touch, that there’d be a day when I came back to visit, and it’d be just like it was–though I wasn’t sure that was true, it was nice for us to visualize it that way.

Life-After-a-Gap-Year-Abroad

However, what I did know was that I had friends and family who’d literally raised me waiting to greet me back home. I was both excited and nervous to see everyone again. Surely, I knew I’d be overwhelmed with questions about my time abroad. I wanted to prepare with a simple answer that could encompass all I’ve seen and lived in that year. It was difficult to imagine I could ever truly describe it at all. I scribbled in my journal on the plane, gathering my thoughts and stories and organizing which ones I’d share with who. I imagined my best friend’s shock when I told her about my freefall off of a waterfall or my brother’s laugh when I told him about the coatis that stole our snack box from the beach. I was beginning to warm up to the idea of seeing everyone. It was less overwhelming and more exciting.

As I gathered my luggage from the conveyor belt and stepped out onto the street to see the familiar faces of my past, a smile broke across my face and I ran into warm, familiar hugs. We packed all of my belongings into the car, and I watched the skyline I’d grown up with in the distance as we drove to my family home.

I waited for the questions to pour in, but to my surprise, the ride was fairly quiet. Maybe they wanted to give me space to acclimate and readjust. I appreciated their thoughtfulness, and figured they’d decided to hold off on the question overload until I had a few days to settle in. But I was somehow underwhelmed days later.

Here’s was what I learned to be true after a few weeks back home

Not Everyone Was Interested In My Trip

Eventually, people asked questions but not nearly as many as I expected. Maybe I thought others’ fascination with my experience would last as long as my own. Fresh from a life of adventure abroad, I was still amazed at all the things I’d learned, explored, discovered about myself and the world around me. I shared exclusive photos I’d saved for my closest friends and family, and they appreciated my stories, but they were over it much sooner than I was.

Life Continued Without Me

Somehow, I was expected to fall into a life that I wasn’t familiar with; friends had gotten engaged, others changed careers or were promoted, new hangout spots were established, and everyone was grooving to the latest hits on the radio I hadn’t even heard of. I didn’t expect life to stop when I moved, but I didn’t prepare to play catch up when I got back.

The Cost of Living Skyrocketed

Not that it’d changed so much from when I first left, but it was definitely a tough adjustment after being able to eat out every night on a third of what I spent at home for a week of groceries. I could no longer afford fancy dinners and a glass of wine; I needed to scale back on my spending.

It Took Time to Get on My Feet

I knew my experience would benefit me when searching for a position. Taking time to travel and work abroad develops leadership, flexibility and adaptability, risk-assessment skills, negotiation, communication, and cultural sensitivity–all qualifications highly sought after by employers. However, I knew I needed time to gather the pieces of me I’d left behind before fully committing myself. When I was ready, my phone was ringing off the hook with opportunities, and even my old employers were happy to offer me a higher position.

My Interests Changed

I realized that I wasn’t as interested in new clothes, makeup, or nightclubs. Not after living a simple, active lifestyle which included strenuous hikes, rafting, ziplining, and overnight bus rides. I was also much more interested in continuing to learn Spanish, a feat I was proud to have accomplished. My interests in travel, languages, cultures, and lifestyles inspired me to move forward with plans to continue traveling in the future. I also learned that money wasn’t as important as I once viewed it. As long as I had the simple necessities of life, and a flexible lifestyle, I was happy.

Through this experience of moving back home, I  found this cliche of “reverse culture shock” to be true (though I admit it’s a terrible term). No matter what I did to try to avoid it, it was there and it was real.

Here are some tips on how to manage and deal with “reverse culture shock”

Understand and Accept You’re a Different Person

Living abroad will absolutely change you, but understanding and accepting it is the first step to successfully readjusting. Your worldview will inevitably be altered, and your friends and family will never be able to imagine all you’ve been through.

To make sense of my thoughts and feelings, I went back to my old love of writing. I began writing in a journal so I was able to reflect. If you choose to take this approach, realize that entries don’t have to be lengthy. Even a few sentences can be enough to serve as a suitable outlet.

Stay in Contact

There’s only a select few who can truly understand your transformation abroad, and likely how uncomfortable it feels to be back home–the friends you made while living overseas. Make sure to stay in touch via messenger or apps like Skype.

Sometimes, scheduling chat sessions isn’t so easy when time zones come into play. Another idea? Find a meetup group of individuals locally who’ve gone through the same experience. The study abroad office at your university, or groups like couchsurfers can help you make the right connections.

Reminisce the Right Way

Not everyone asks about your trip, and not everyone cares. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Lots of people are intrigued by your bravery to live abroad, you just might not know them. Given today’s technology, there’s a platform for everyone. If you want to share your stories about your days by the beach, hikes through the jungle, or all the stray dogs you befriended, here are some ideas to help you express yourself:

Start a blog–it’s simple and free to start your own blog. Writing for an audience can be a great way to get your stories out there. It might even serve as portfolio work for an employment opportunity.

Write for others–Travel sites love getting articles from travelers who’ve got lots to share. If maintaining your own site seems too daunting, submitting articles to other sites might be a more attractive option. Maximo Nivel, for example, loves getting articles from past participants and they’re happy to get your stuff published on their own blog (here I am!)

Make videos–Writing not your thing? Put together a video of some of your most memorable experiences. Videos allow for visual stimulation that utilizes more senses than writing and usually attract much larger audiences.

Collage & Scrapbook–Get creative by printing photos, making scrapbooks and putting together collages. These items can help you to relive your memories, and add some style to your own space. If visitors weren’t asking about your trip before, they’ll be sure to ask after viewing all the photos you’ve put together.

Give Back

One of the best ways to get you through the difficulties of coping back home is connecting with those who are getting ready to go abroad themselves. You can give back in several ways–The study abroad office is always looking for alumni who can speak on their experiences. Attend fairs and events to promote your time abroad, and guide interested students in the right direction by giving tips and advice.

Be a Tourist in Your Own Country

Being back home doesn’t mean the adventures need to stop. Find places back home that remind you of your time abroad. Find cultural neighborhoods, authentic restaurants, and festive events that reawaken your sense of adventure.