The following are some reflections from Spring 2016 alum Sarah Kistler, now a senior at Messiah College.
As I sat in our last class and debrief session in Australia, the ASC staff prepared us for reverse culture shock and possible struggles when facing reentry back home. They read us quotes from former students talking about how unexpectedly hard reentry was. I mostly believed them. I knew I would miss my time abroad but had no idea how I would handle the transition. I cried harder than I expected when I hugged my host mum for the last time and I felt less excited than I expected when I saw my parents’ car pull up to the curb I was waiting on at the Philadelphia airport. But I was not too worried about these responses. They were bound to happen and they were easy to manage. For the rest of the summer I kept myself busy so I had little time to process. People asked me about my semester and I would muddle through an answer that was all over the place and confusing even to me. But life went on. I was excited to come back to Messiah College but I proceeded to have the most difficult semester of my college life thus far. I found myself so dissatisfied and had no idea that the reason for this was because of how I was personally handling my reentry process.
Now that I have been home for several months I feel like I am finally able to talk about my experience abroad in a way that makes sense—the only thing is nobody is asking about it anymore. And I think that is a part of what has made reentry difficult. I tried to answer people honestly when they asked about my time abroad but I always kept in mind what my audience really wanted—so I made sure to throw in that the kangaroos are cute and taste good too. I made sure to make a comment about how beautiful the beaches are and to educate them on some Aussie slang. And while these were all a part of my experience that I genuinely liked talking about, they were not significant parts of my experience. The problem was that the significant parts of my experience were not the most engaging facts and stories.
I did not want to tell them about my near death experience with a crocodile in the outback (which did not actually happen) but about the revelation I had about my faith and how under the outback stars I felt God closer to me than I had in awhile. I wanted to tell them how my host mum made me an amazing dinner every single day and always made sure I had what I needed. I wanted to tell them about the people I met and shared weekly meals with while serving at the Micah Projects. I wanted to tell them about the injustices that Indigenous Australians have and still face in their country and how their narrative has woken me to the reality of America’s own indigenous people. I wanted to tell them about how our program directors have become some of the greatest role models I have ever had and the students in the program became some of my best friends. I wanted to tell people why I cringe with guilt every time I forget to bring my reusable shopping bag into the grocery store and have to use plastic, and why I try am constantly asking what the telos is of everything I encounter. I wanted to tell people all the things I learned about America and my own culture from being displaced from it.
Re-entry was hard because there were so many aspects of my four months in Australia that I had to leave out not only when answering the question “so how was Australia?” but when getting back into my normal routine at home and at Messiah College. I went back to eating all three meals alone, using weekends to catch up on sleep and homework and figure out how to somehow get ahead for the next crazy week. I had no time or energy to sit and reflect and a majority of my learning came from readings and lectures in the classroom rather than experience and exploration. Despite this I must admit that I missed Messiah dearly while at Christian Heritage College in Australia. I missed my friends, I missed driving, I missed using my debit card without anxiety that it would be declined. I know I couldn’t stay in Australia forever nor would I want to because it isn’t home. But parts of myself were transformed there in the smallest, most subtle ways. Reentry is hard and unpredictable. I came home six months ago but my experience abroad is still challenging and shaping me as I hope continues to be the case as more distance increases between me and my semester down under.