Reflection, Reconsideration, and Reconnection: Moving Beyond Re-entry

Eric Hartman

Today’s guest post is by Eric Hartman, PhD.  I met Eric several years ago at a global service learning conference and have great respect for his work.  Eric and I are designing a webinar series that will launch in January 2012 – more information will be available soon.  Meanwhile, please enjoy Eric’s piece, which was his “spot on” response to our conversation about the need to do a lot more than journal once home.  

As educators, as students, or as travelers, when we return from experiences abroad everything around us suggests that it’s time to return to “normal living,” life as it is, and by extension life as it should be. The mismatch between these strong environmental pressures to return to normal and our own deeply felt changes can lead to varying degrees of reverse culture shock.

This process is experienced and felt viscerally. It is often gut- and heart-wrenching. My colleague Richard Kiely documented this thoroughly with his articulation of the chameleon complex. In the Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, Kiely describes how returning travelers look the same to their friends and family members, but very frequently feel so fundamentally changed that they are surprised that others cannot see their new identity. While returning travelers are typically not conscious of this contrast in such explicit terms, struggle with the process of returning is common.

Struggle is common, but thoughtful processes and resources to support that struggle are rare. Others have noticed the extraordinary potential in learning from this uncomfortable experience. In a Forum article on innovative international experiential education programs, Chip Peterson asserted international educators too frequently treat reverse culture shock “as a sort of temporary pathology that we must help students work through, rather than one of the most pregnant learning moments students” ever experience.

Indeed, what is frequently missed in dialogue about re-entry and reverse culture shock is that travelers (whether old or young) struggle because they have learned that the world as they understood it was incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst. In the global service-learning programs I have frequently worked with, these new insights have often come in the context of severe injustices.

Travelers return and desperately wish that their friends and loved ones would understand that they met wonderful and kind people in (for example) Tanzania. They wish others could know that many of those people work as hard and dream as beautifully as we do, and that – due to circumstances beyond their control – they nonetheless have far fewer options than we do. And they wish people knew that the situation can change with relatively small, carefully targeted, accountable investments in people’s lives.

Even in programs that do not have social justice at the center of the inquiry and experience, travelers commonly experience surprising growth and realize unpredicted insights. They change. And in all likelihood that change reflects a more complicated, complex, nuanced, and therefore accurate view of the world. When friends, family, and even educators suggest that returning travelers should get “back to normal” they’re asking budding lifelong learners to deny new insights. Several assignments and activities, however, can systematically target and support this important learning. Here are just a few suggestions.

Ideally these activities will come in the context of ongoing thoughtful, targeted reflective experiences before, during, and after intercultural immersion experiences. The key near the time of return, in any case, is to focus on communication capacity. Assignments that foster communication capabilities include:

  1. The Elevator Speech: Ask travelers to prepare a 30 second response to the question, “How was your trip?” Prepare them for this important moment. Actually practice the speeches. This activity serves multiple purposes. It develops individuals’ communication capabilities and strengthens a skill necessary in the nonprofit and private sectors, while also supporting individuals in their efforts to reconnect upon return home. Crafting and sharing an elevator speech forces travelers to consider what was most important about their learning and what they most want to share with others. Ideally, the speech inspires listeners’ curiosity and leads to more conversation.
  2. The Letter to a (Skeptical) Loved One: “Why are you going over there?” Almost everyone has at least one skeptic in their life: the person who does not understand why travel is appealing or (even more frequently) why someone would do volunteer service “with those people over there.” This letter does not need to be sent (and that should certainly not be a requirement), but a good exercise to foster and improve communication skills is asking travelers to craft a letter to the skeptic in their lives. They should be encouraged to consider the values they share in common with that person, the good and positive values that person holds, and how their travel or international service relates to those values. Then they should practice communicating in the context of those values. Almost everyone ultimately has a values basis that suggests common human dignity – the importance is often finding the right way to communicate about how international travel is in itself supporting and advancing an important process of peace by pieces.
  3. The (Explicitly Public) Presentation: “What have you learned?” This is a question faculty members frequently want to ask students at the end of courses. And this is precisely the right question to ask after a study abroad immersion experience. Part of the assignment, however, should be to arrange a venue where the presentation will be shared with six or more people. This can be done by using online tools, developing a video, and posting it on Facebook or Twitter. Or it can be achieved by (still more common) organizing a group of six or more friends (on the dorm floor), family members, faith institution members, etc. Students thus have to engage in the civic act of organizing an audience as they develop an opportunity to share their learning with members of their community who are important to them. I have listed an example of what this assignment looks like in my syllabi.

These assignments are three among many opportunities for advancing individual learning and development before, during, and after international experiences. I am working with Missy Gluckmann at Melibee Global on some upcoming webinars that expand this conversation to:

  • Global Service-Learning by Design
  • Integrating Critical Reflection
  • Advancing Common Human Dignity (aka Global Citizenship)


Sample Assignment:

Capstone Presentation: Prepare a presentation for a group in which you are involved. This could be a club or organization, a church, a class that you know you have access to or a media outlet you follow. If you’d prefer, make a YouTube video and get at least six of your friends and family members to watch it. Synthesize your own experiences and what you’ve learned in a format that is memorable and accessible and helps others see what opportunities may exist for them. The presentation should be at least 10 minutes long. You will do the presentation in the final class meeting, but you should prepare in light of the audience to whom you will eventually present it at home.

Presentation Grading Rubric

___/10             Presentation is at least 10 minutes long

___/10             Visual presentation is crisp, professional, engaging, and without error

___/10             Clearly identifies country, location, concise history, language(s)

___/30            Clearly addresses your individual experience, what you have learned, why it should be important to others, and what you and your audience can do about the social issues involved

___/30             Clearly provides the audience with next steps for addressing pressing social issues and/or learning about other cultures

___/10             Capably and professionally responds to questions

About the Author: Eric Hartman wonders about justice – and works to advance its realization. He has supported community-driven development projects around the world, ensuring the completion of classrooms in Bolivia, improving water access and women’s rights in Tanzania, and developing literacy and numeracy tutoring programs for refugees in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All of his work came through university-community engagement and service-learning, where he continuously challenges students and faculty to act and reflect with a simultaneity that permits clear community outcomes and reflective consideration of how to work together to build a better world. He has served as Executive Director of Amizade Global Service-Learning, Lecturer in Global Studies at Arizona State University, and taught community-engaged courses in more than seven different departments at five universities. He is completing a book (with R. Kiely, J. Friedrichs, and C. Boettcher, Kumarian Press) titled “Building a Better World: The Pedagogy and Practice of Global Service-Learning.” He also contributes to popular blogs and media, including Melibee Global, Good Intentions are Not Enough, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, International Educator, and Transitions Abroad, as well as academic journals and texts, such as Community Works Journal, Public Administration Review, and several edited volumes on service-learning. He blogs regularly and is on twitter @emhartman.