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.


  1. ds8607a says:

    Really looking forward to from hearing more from Eric on facilitating reentry transitions. Thanks for this post, Missy! As I have buried myself in articles/papers/literature on this topic for the past couple of months, I have discovered that there are certainly more and more innovative designs circulating now in terms of delivering reentry training. However, the content is more or less the same–and I agree, it is somewhat stale and often too focused on "how to talk about/put the skills I gained on a resume." Combining some of Eric's ideas with some of Todd Drake's methods would indeed be very interesting too…

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      Thanks D! Ironically, I just emailed the link to this article to Todd. Eric is interested in what Todd and I are working on also (Re-entry through Art.) I will loop you in for support for the January workshop as I know this area interests you. I'm very passionate about it too – it is NOT just about skills – there is so much more to consider!

  2. Joseph Miller says:

    Thanks for this article, Eric. I am always thinking about how our students in Tanzania are doing right now with "Re-entry," a word that, in agreement, fails to capture or facilitate transformations. Its as if the student is somehow reset on their study abroad program and re-entry is a restoration project, infused with minor adjustments. A different way to conceptualize this is that the international education, well-done experiments in international living based on praxis, put the student on a different plane entirely and they should not be trying to re-enter life as it were but be guided on how this is first day of their new journey, consciousness, and desire to affect change. A common theme on service learning programs in Tanzania revolved around the students' first genuine attempt to see and understand systemic poverty and the causes of it. One important element in my teaching experience was tying service in Tanzania to commitment to social change at home, and teaching through a world systems theory lens that helps students understand the injustices perpetrated by transnational corporations or national governments over time as a primary force in underdevelopment in Tanzania. This, when combined with witnessing the unflinching hard work of Tanzanian peasants, without complaint nor fair compensation, who struggle against structures that the students themselves are just now learning to understand, becomes more than just an attenuation process back home; the plane of existence that proceeded the experience doesn't exist. What has taken its place is a new consciousness that structures in the States need to change in order for people in "poor Africa" to be allowed to develop as they wishes, which is far from the reality there. When this connection was made, the "re-entry" process back to the States was a first hand experience in Babylon-revisited. Sometimes students fall into the traps of "re-entry" that I think the Study Abroad industry sets for them: resumes; talking about the experience using the industry buzz words (formative, life change, transformative) or the generational buzz words (awesome, amazing, incredible); capitulating to the audience's expectations of what the experience meant or will mean in the future. Other students, much more rarely, take the connections and launch their new lives in social justice, participate in movements like Occupy Wall Street (something that before the experience maybe meant little to them or did not yet pique those newly-forming political interests), start a local organization, learn Kiswahili in order to return to Tanzania, and stand in solidarity with a large network of social justice workers. Its these kinds of activities that you suggest (and well beyond), Eric, that can facilitate the latter.

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      It is those standard study abroad industry approaches that prompted this guest post and upcoming workshops. We need to help connect the dots beyond skills for jobs! Needless to say, I'm very excited about the energy around this subject.

  3. Joseph Miller says:

    I think its contention with the standard study abroad industry approaches that prompted this guest post to begin with, right? There is clearly a deficiency in capital Study Abroad that makes this kind of discussion important. I am really curious that, within the Study Abroad industry, what more is there to consider beyond jobs? In other words, the industry itself is very limiting in discourse on how to discuss these things, and its outside of that box that these questions are being asked. Whether these questions challenge that box is another question altogether.

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      Yes. There is a heavy emphasis in colleges these days that leans toward job training/career. Most study abroad administrators are overloaded and underfunded, so it will be exciting to offer different tools (and revive the conversation!)

  4. Marty Tillman says:

    This is an interesting discussion. As someone who has been in the "industry" for over three decades, who went to SIT, led for SIT in India and managed intercultural programs around the world —I'd suggest one has to be careful with making large generalizations about the either the "study abroad industry" or the "higher ed community" writ large. There are numerous examples of best practices on campuses – see the Michigan State U "unpacking" seminar on their website which is required for all returning students and represents a highly sophisticated effort to assist students in making sense of their experiences and gaining clarity about articulating it to different audiences. Similarly, in the non-academic" industry there are also examples of programs establishing useful in-country reflective experiences for students prior to their departure…As for Missy's last point on the focus upon the impact of study abroad on career development – a topic I've written widely about- I think it remains a valuable and useful perspective for both program administrators and for students. It's not about excluding the meaningful ways that service-learning or study abroad changes lives and adds a global dimension to a students' life. It is about the importance of assisting students to articulate how a program impacted them in both intellectual and emotional terms — how it changed their whole being and what that then says about their capacity to perform more effectively in a particular assignment. Something important if a student seeks to work with an international NGO engaged in humanitarian relief work or other development projects [much as World Learning has been doing for decades]. Or if the person looks to work at home in community development or with a social change nonprofit.

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      Hi Marty! Thanks so much for sharing your valuable perspective. I should clarify – and apologize if anything I stated was interpreted in a way that I did not anticipate – that is to say that considering the value of study abroad in career development is incredibly important. I consider the work that you're doing in this area to be in the best practice league and am really happy to see the number of re-entry conferences that are shared across schools and regions. And you are absolutely correct; there are many examples of schools with solid, integrated reflective practices that begin at departure, in country and back at home. One of the challenges that I'm trying to address, with Eric, is that there are many schools that don't have a clear plan in place to consider how to address the transformation that happens as part of study abroad, especially in the program design. This issue may tend to be more of an issue for smaller to mid size programs – who don't have the staffing or $s to train in these areas. In addition, I have written about the challenge I see facing the higher education industry at large – and that is getting away from the focus of teaching and instead thinking of college as a stepping stone toward a career as the primary focus. At some point in this industry (and I do very much see it as an industry) determined that linking jobs to learning was going to bring in more students, especially as budgets get more and more challenging and competition is more aggressive. I believe that this philosophy has extended to study abroad (e.g. how did your experience enhance or increase your skills and how can that translate to your resume so you can be a more competitive candidate.) Skills and career planning are incredibly important – we do agree on this – no question. However, I am trying to create more dialogue about how these experiences are part of our longer life journey toward global citizenship and not perceived by students or community as a chapter in our lives that we compartmentalize. Part of that is understanding our skills, absolutely, and part of it is creating a path toward future engagement abroad and at home so that we are not only aware of our global community, but also our local community and how we can contribute and continue to share/learn (and develop skills) once coming home. So I actually think we are on the same page. I'm just particularly interested in expanding the dialogue to include more schools who don't have the resources to consider this due to budget cuts, staffing shortages, lack of professional development, lack of data, etc.. Would love to hear more of your thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to share some of the best practices out there and to clarify that the two areas (career and global citizenship) are very compatible.

  5. I really appreciate everyone's posts here. At the moment I'm just excited to follow some of the threads that have been suggested above, and I look forward to sharing a more thorough response in the future. Thanks, everyone, for such thoughtful responses.

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