Unpacking Reverse Culture Shock: Unexpected Challenges and Personal Growth for Returning Students

Published on 26 May 2024 at 20:39

Not expected and unpepared for reverse culture shock

Many students anticipate culture shock when going abroad for an extended period, but they do not expect reverse culture shock upon returning to their home country. Even if they have heard about reverse culture shock before leaving, it is difficult to imagine what they might experience or feel. One of the interviewees in my research mentioned that she had heard about reverse culture shock but thought it would not apply to her. She was prepared for culture shock but not for reverse culture shock. However, she definitely experienced it.

Negative and positive experiences

Regarding the uncertainty around what to expect and feel about culture shock, it seems useful to specify the phenomenon. Both the literature and my research indicate that there are both negative and positive experiences. While Gaw's (2000) research focused specifically on problems, other scholars (Pritchard, 2011; Haines, 2013) also discuss an expanded range of skills and personal understanding, which can be seen as positive experiences. These experiences all refer to different dimensions of Reverse Culture Shock, as outlined by Ward, Bochner, and Furnham (2001)..

Multi-dimensional: cognitive, emotional, behavioral`and personal development

Results from my research among 118 study abroad students confirmed experiences of reverse culture shock in several areas: emotional, cognitive, and behavioural. The students also experienced personal development. This suggests that the phenomenon is multifaceted rather than one-dimensional. I argue therefor for distinguishing multiple dimensions (cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and personal development) of re-entry shock and propose using the terms emotional imbalance, behavioural disorientation, and cognitive re-orientation. This approach may help to make the phenomenon more comprehensible. Students can more easily relate to the re-entry process this way, identifying their experiences in one or more of these dimensions. Moreover, it supports and emphasises the individual nature of the experience. Pusch (2005) also addresses this, preferring to visualise a re-entry “worm” rather than the U-curve proposed by Lysgaard (1955). She argues that returning to one's home country is a process that can vary greatly from person to person.

Experienced symptoms and personal development

The students who participated in my research experienced aspects of reverse culture shock in all three areas, with a particular emphasis on cognitive aspects. These included a changed worldview, greater respect for other countries and cultures, and new life goals. Generally, they felt that they had changed. Thus, the focus is on cognitive reorientation rather than emotional imbalance (e.g., feeling alienated, misunderstood, missing friends from abroad, feeling bored) or behavioural disorientation (e.g., different clothing styles, communication). Additionally, it became clear that students experienced self-development (see table), such as increased self-confidence, self-reliance, perseverance, and flexibility.

Reverse culture shock or re-entry process?

In my view, the term "reverse culture shock" may not adequately reflect the phenomenon it describes. This is also reflected in the literature, where various terms are used: reverse culture shock, re-entry shock, and re-entry process. The term "shock" has a negative connotation, suggesting only negative experiences, whereas both negative and positive experiences occur. Additionally, "reverse culture shock" may be too restrictive. The emphasis on "culture" might lead to the assumption that the issues are primarily cultural, whereas the experiences described encompass emotional, behavioural, cognitive, and personal development dimensions.

Moreover, the term "shock" implies a sudden and brief occurrence, yet some experiences, such as a broadened perspective or increased self-confidence and self-reliance, are lasting rather than short-lived. When students return after a period abroad, they enter a process in which they may experience these symptoms. Therefore, the term "re-entry process" might better capture the phenomenon.


Ria Saltsidis-Oekas


-Gaw, K. F. (2000). Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 24(1), 83–104.

-Gullahorn, J. T., & Gullahorn, J. E. (1963). An extension of the U-curve hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues, 19(3), 33–47.

-Haines, D. (2013). “More Aware of Everything”: Exploring the Returnee Experience in American Higher Education. Journal of Studies in International Education 17(1) 9 –38.

-Lysgaard, S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin, 7, 45–51.
-Pritchard, R. (2011). Re-entry Trauma: Asian Re-integration After Study in the West. Journal of Studies in International Education 15(1) 93 –111.
-Saltsidis-Oekas, R. (2018), A study into the reverse culture shock experience of outgoing Exchange and Grand Tour students
-Saltsidis-Oekas, R. , Nicolai, N. (2019), Getting the best out of your travel and stay abroad, and how to cope with reverse-culture schock. Prepare, Reflect, Grow.
-Ward, C., S. Bochner, & A. Furnham. The Psychology of Culture Shock, 2nd. ed.  East Sussex, Great Britain: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2001. Chapter 7 (Sojourners: International students) deals with the study abroad and international educational Exchange groups both in terms of adjustment abroad and upon return home.


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