Reverse Culture Shock at Pitzer

Colorful produce on display at the Ecuadorian market frequented by Hilsinger.
Colorful produce on display at the Ecuadorian market frequented by Hilsinger. Photo by Elise Hilsinger

By Liz Scherffius

Embraced in the open arms of her loving family, Pitzer senior Elise Hilsinger was welcomed home from Ecuador. Putting her bags in the car at the terminal, the Hilsingers were off to a Raiders football game. Parking on a side street and walking to their season seats, her brother surprised her with the hot pink iPhone he had been concealing in his pocket. Hilsinger said she was so overwhelmed by the sight of it that she asked him to put it away. The Raiders game proved to be too much for Hilsinger to handle upon arrival as well.

A life-long Raiders fan, Hilsinger recalls, “This was my first experience back in the States, and I was crying at the game.”

Hilsinger was experiencing reverse culture shock. After spending the following weeks at home as a “hermit” and limiting herself to seeing a few close friends, Hilsinger was excited to reconnect with her fellow students who went on the Ecuador program, as she believed they were going through a similar experience.

Home, idealized as the most familiar place on Earth, can seem like a foreign country upon reentry. Craig Storti in his book, “The Art of Coming Home,” says that when returning from abroad, one may find some aspects of home culture to be “surprising, offensive, and even shocking,” whereas before they may have gone unnoticed as part of everyday life.

Todd Sasaski, the Director of Pitzer College International Programs, said that while home can change, the returning student is inevitably shaped by their experience abroad and will have a different perspective on aspects of their home culture.

Mike Donahue, the Director of International Education and Pitzer Programs said that students generally have an easier transition going abroad than coming home, because they are psychologically prepared for and desiring differences in their host country. He said one of the most effective ways to transition to home culture is to take aspects of the host culture that you valued and try to incorporate them into daily life.

Hilsinger reintegrated herself into Pitzer life by signing up for Chicano Studies 65. This course, known as Spanish Practicum, gave Hilsinger the opportunity to practice her Spanish and enjoy a relationship with a local family she would visit once a week. This year Hilsinger is a Global Friendship Alliance mentor to an Ecuadorian exchange student. The Global Friendship Alliance is a mentorship program that works to integrate Pitzer College exchange students into college and US culture.

Getting to know international students, sharing experiences with other returning students, working as a Global Friendship Alliance mentor for foreign students or taking classes such as Chicano Studies 65 are effective ways to both process the abroad experience and transition to being home. Students returning home with new eyes see their own world through a different cultural lens, which is something to be accepted, expected and valued.

Today, Hilsinger can be found with friends on the mounds, listening to their favorite Spanish songs, with her hot pink iPhone in her back pocket.

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