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More than a vacation: exploring the impact of reentry for international sojourners.

As our population becomes increasingly internationalized in today's global society, a need emerges for awareness, research, and support for the mental health needs of clients who have returned from sojourns abroad. This article describes how mental health counselors can become more aware of the reentry experience. It also explores such factors as expectations, transition, advocacy, and grief and loss. It diminishes the perception of sojourning as simply a vacation and discusses adjustments clients often have to make upon returning home. The article offers recommendations for working with clients who are finding reentry difficult, explores implications for the mental health counseling profession, and offers ideas for future research.


"Why is coming home so difficult?" (Sussman, 2000, p. 362). A mental health counselor (MHC) may recognize this statement from a client struggling to understand why adjusting to the home culture after time away is unexpectedly challenging. Many returning sojourners find that they have changed as a result of their international experiences and are unable to easily readjust to the once familiar home they left weeks, months, or even years before. Scholars have called for an increase in preparation and training for reentry (La Brack, 1993; Lau & Ng, 2012; Martin & Harrell, 2004; Mehta, 2011; Sussman, 2000; Westwood, Lawrence, & Paul, 1986). Reentry can be a revolutionary time for many individuals and families in universities and communities. Although it has been called the most difficult phase of international sojourning (Bosustow, 2005; Storti, 2001), organizations, universities, and companies facilitating experiences abroad often offer little preparation for reentry.

The annual Open Doors Report of the Institute of International Education (HE, 2013), noted that study abroad programs have tripled in the past three decades. International sojourning covers both graduate and undergraduate students studying abroad and international students in the U.S. For the academic year 2012-13, the HE reported the number of international students enrolled at a U.S. institution as a record high 819,644. Sojourners may also be missionaries, military personnel, refugees, Peace Corps participants, and those internationally employed. Gaw (2000) reported that common reentry problems are cultural identity conflict, values conflict, stress, anger, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, and interpersonal difficulties. Although returning home may look different depending on the individual and the context, reentry is one of many issues that are important for counselors to consider when working with sojourners.

In light of the increased number of international sojourners and the call for more research and understanding of reentry, the responsibility emerges for MHCs to provide such clients with the skills and preparation needed to engage in the process successfully (Jung, Lee, & Morales, 2013; Lau & Ng, 2012; Mehta, 2011; Christofi & Thompson, 2007). In what follows we provide definitions and basic understanding of reentry concepts, describe potential factors related to reentry, and encourage MHCs to address reentry in their practices, research, and work with university counseling centers and in outreach in their communities.


Reentry has been termed reverse culture shock (Gaw, 2000), reacculturation (Berry, 2005), repatriation (Sussman, 2000), returning (AFS, 2013), or coming home (Werkman, 1980). One pivotal issue here is thus a lack of common terminology. Arthur (2003) said that reentry is "better understood as a psychological process rather than physical relocation home" (p. 174). Similarly, Westwood et al. (1986) defined reentry as "the continuum of experience and behaviors which are encountered when an individual returns to a place of origin after having been immersed in another context for a period of time sufficient to cause some degree of mental and emotional adjustment" (p. 223). Despite the variance in definitions, however, there is agreement on the inconsistency between expectations and the reality' of returning home (Brown, 2009; Christofi & Thompson, 2007; The Center for Global Education, 2012; Lau & Ng, 2012; Jung et al., 2013; Pan, Wong, Joubert, & Chang, 2007; Szkudlarek, 2009; Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001).

One's culture provides an internal working model for decision-making, beliefs, motivations, and views of others in one's social world. During the sojourn experience, many navigate acculturation reactions and gain a new integrated cultural identity (Brown & Brown, 2009; Sussman, 2000). Christofi and Thompson (2007) discussed identity as a subtheme of the general theme of Changing/Static in their qualitative study of students who had studied abroad and returned home. Participants described discovering personality and behavioral changes in themselves as a result of the experience in new cultural contexts. They spoke of changes in botli themselves and their home culture, and of what happens upon returning home when "you realize that you've changed and they've changed or you've changed and they've stayed the same" (Christofi & Thompson, p. 60).

The Sussman (2000) cultural model of reentry, which incorporates self-concept and cultural identity development, attempted to explain the process, highlighting the impact of the individual's cultural identity, cultural flexibility, sociocultural adaptation, and self-concept before, during, and after a sojourn. Despite some methodological limitations, the model highlights the relationship between cultural adaptation and reentry and the understanding that experiences overseas can change a person in unexpected ways. Martin and Harrell (2004) produced a systems model for academic sojourn and reentry, taking into account psychological health, expectations, identity, and cultural learning. Further research is needed on both models to better understand the impact of reentry given that when abroad sojourners are often confronted with ways of thinking that are different from their current cultural context and are forced to re-evaluate and integrate their own cultural identity (Smith, 2001; Sussman, 2000).

La Brack (1993) reported a missing link between orientation training and reentry for international academic programs in that reentry issues were not discussed with sojourners. This reinforced the call of Sussman (1986) for reentry preparation earlier in the sojourn process. Often individuals do not expect an adjustment period when they return home because they assume that home is a familiar place (Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Gaw, 2000; Jung et ah, 2013); however, it is likely that both the sojourner and the home environment have changed. In this article, we define reentry as a continuum of intercultural learning, beginning with expectations before the experience and continuing months or even years after the return home.


Previous research has discussed the benefits of preparing the sojourner for reentry (Brown, 2009; Butcher, 2002; Gaw, 2000; La Brack, 1993; Lau & Ng, 2012; Lester, 2000; Martin & Harrell, 2004; Szkudlarek, 2009). Such models for preventing reentry problems are consistent with the goals of MHCs and highlight the growth and intercultural development of individual sojourners. Scholars (e.g., Brown & Brown, 2009; Winkleman, 1994) have questioned whether the sojourner's newly constructed cultural self (Brown & Brown 2009; Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Sussman, 2000) is sustainable when information on and preparation for reentry are not available. A discussion of expectations and knowledge of the potential "new self" that sojourning often creates may be essential for preventing difficult reentry transitions. Butcher (2002) also outlined a need to help returning students to transfer new skills learned overseas to future school and employment opportunities. In their study of international graduates of U.S. counseling programs, Lau and Ng (2012) identified sojourner and returnee adjustment distress as an emerging theme and recommended that counseling programs discuss multiple reentry concerns with students before returning home. In another qualitative study exploring the reentry experiences of Cypriot international sojourners, Christofi and Thompson (2007) found shock and adjustment to be common. Both these studies made it clear that sojourners did not expect the transition home to be as impactful as it turned out to be.

Exploring the lack of preparation for international students in higher education, Westwood et al. (1986) thought that reentry programs would provide "inexpensive insurance" to protect the large amounts of money individuals, institutions, and governments spend on international sojourns (p. 230). Without awareness and proper guidance, the opportunity to integrate the intercultural experience into a lifelong learning process may be lost (La Brack, 1993). In a qualitative analysis of 10 counseling students who participated in a study-abroad experience, Mehta (2011) identified numerous implications for the counseling profession, such as "the need for post immersion reflection, stating a need for some time to process and 'unpack' the experience by sharing with friends and family, reading journal entries, debriefing with the immersion group after returning back home and giving presentations on their experience for their local communities" (p. 133).


To better understand reentry, an overview of initial entry or acculturation into a host country has proved to be useful (Berry, 2005; Gaw, 2000; Neto, 2010). In discussing reverse culture shock in students who were participating in an international sojourn, Gaw (2000) reported the need to first acknowledge culture shock. The initial response in the acculturation process is commonly known as culture shock (Ward et al., 2001), and reverse culture shock occurs upon arrival home. Berry (2005) considered the term culture shock to have negative pathological overtones and therefore coined the term "acculturative stress" as signaling a solution through effective coping skills. Berry defined acculturation as a process of contact with a culture different from that of an individual or group that may have four outcomes: assimilation, marginalization, integration, and separation. Each elicits psychological reactions, including the ideal acculturation state of integration. Berry (identified numerous moderating factors specific to the process of acculturation, some of which pertained to characteristics of the sojourner (age, gender, education, religion, health, language, expectation, cultural distances, pre-acculturation) and others to the sojourner's experiences (contact discrepancy, social support, societal attitudes, coping, strategies, resources). In a review of the literature, Szkudlarek (2009) identified similar individual aud systemic factors related to the impact of reentry. Each factor should be considered in context when working with clients.

As for the impact of an international sojourn on an individual client, several models have emerged from previous studies. Margaret Pusch (as cited in World Learning, 2008) identified a reentry "worm" to illustrate the range of emotions individuals may experience upon returning home: initial excitement, judgmental stage, realization stage, reverse culture shock stage, and balance re-adaptation. Although the U-curve model has been referenced for under standing initial acculturation, there is little empirical evidence to support it (Brown, 2009; Church, 1982; Szkudlarek, 2009; Ward et al., 2001; Zapf, 1991). Linear models often limit the experiences and neglect contextual aspects of individuals; nevertheless, due to the lack of another model, the U- curve model continues to be used in a variety of settings.

Similar issues emerge when using the W-curve model for reentry. One assumption made with the W model is that reentry adjustment depends on initial acculturation (The Center for Global Education, 2012); yet Martin (1984) outlined a need to understand how the reentry process is similar to or different from the initial adjustment to a foreign country. Al-Krenawi and Graham (2005) found in a case study of couples counseling that reentry was influenced by the couple's initial acculturation "baggage." However, there is no research to either support or contradict these claims. In terms of the academic sojourn, research reports a fundamental failure to link acculturative stress with reentry (La Brack, 1993: Szkudlarek, 2009; Ward et al., 2001). Nevertheless, MHCs can find preventive strategies to normalize and address psychological and emotional needs before entry and again upon reentry.


It is important that MHCs and counselor educators be aware of the many variables that may affect individuals and explore how these variables can impact the individual's cultural, personality, and identity development. Although certain individual and situational factors are common during the reentry process, each sojourner has unique needs (Lin & Yi, 1997; Martin, 1984; Szkudlarek, 2009). In examining characteristics of sojourners, it is necessary to consider such variables as gender, age, personality, religion, marital status, socioeconomic status, pre-existing mental or physical conditions, and previous international experience (Martin, 1984; Mehta, 2011; Szkudlarek, 2009). Expanding on these factors, we discuss the potential implications of reentry expectations, transitions, and grief and loss.


International sojourners have a variety of expectations about their time abroad and what they may experience upon their return (Martin, Bradford & Rohrlich, 1995). Reentry often causes stress because the transition has not been anticipated (Arthur, 2003; Bosustow, 2005; Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Lester, 2000; Martin & Harrell, 2004; Sussman, 2002). Martin et al. (1995) suggested that exposure to and experience with geographic adaptability (e.g., number of international sojourns and previous domestic moves) may increase the ability of the sojourner to have more realistic expectations. Szkudlarek (2009) found numerous situational variables that affect the reentry process: length of stay, changes in home environments, cultural distance between home and host countries, support/contact in the country of origin and the host country, housing, language, and the quality of the experience. Due to the impact these and other variables may have, research is necessary to help determine how best to prepare and educate individuals, families, and home and host cultures for reentry. Despite the gap in the literature, MHCs can assist clients and families with a variety of the prevention interventions discussed.

Transitioning Home

Individuals returning from a sojourn may chart a different life course based on the knowledge and experience they gleaned while away (Brown & Graham, 2009; Sussman, 2000). Counselors can help provide and clarify tools they need in this time of transition. Individuals may internalize feelings (Butcher, 2002) or "shoebox" the experience by repressing feelings or thoughts due to an inability to express them appropriately (La Brack, 1993), exacerbating adjustment and reentry difficulties (Brown, 2009; La Brack, 1993; Szkudlarek, 2009).

Brown and Graham (2009) noted that international sojourners expressed apprehension about reentry, fearing that their home culture would not be receptive to the changes resulting from their experience. Upon reentry, they have to integrate their experiences overseas with their home experience, often with little support (Arthur, 2003; Bosustow, 2005; Lester, 2000; Sussman, 2002). Changes to their cultural identity and self-concept are more highly evident; they are now different from who they were when they left, but at the same time not entirely part of the other culture (Arthur, 2003). Often, they do not fully understand the changes until they are back home and begin to notice differences (Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Jung et ah, 2013; World Learning, 2008). Feeling like an outsider in the home culture can be lonely (Lester, 2000) and depressing (Bosustow, 2005). Sojourners may have negative views of their home country and culture that need to be expressed, felt, and processed (Martin & Harrell, 2004; Sussman, 2000; Walling, Eriksson, Meese, Ciovica, Gorton, & Foy, 2006; World Learning, 2008).

The familiar support systems of family and friends may not understand the changes, expecting the sojourner to return home as the same person (Arthur, 2003; Lester, 2000). Others often minimize this transformational experience as "merely a vacation." Questions may arise for the sojourners about whether they will feel a part of the home culture again (Arthur, 2003). To increase awareness and knowledge of reentry for the academic sojourner, World Learning (2002) provides a manual for parents to address some of the challenges and rewards of reentry and how they can support their children during the transition. MHCs can facilitate conversations with families and support systems in outreach, workshops, or groups and provide psychoeducational handouts for reentry.

During reentry sojourners may struggle with integrating their new cultural self with the old self (Sussman, 2000). Because this internal struggle is not often normalized, counselors must be aware of this possible cultural dissonance when working with them. World Learning (2008) suggested sojourners write letters to themselves before leaving home about their expectations and fears of both entry and reentry, while in the host country and again back home, to reflect on their experience. Often, the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and emotions of an overseas experience are impossible to describe (Mehta, 2011; Smith, 2001; Werkman, 1980). Experiential interventions and expressive arts can assist in the counseling process when words prove difficult.

Giving clients a supportive environment to share, explore, and integrate the changing parts of their identity is crucial. Counselors can put together groups so that sojourners can connect, share experiences, and enhance personal growth as they address a variety of reentry adjustments and concerns. Connecting with other international sojourners can be done both in and out of the counseling session. American Field Services (2013) provides Returnee Reconnect options for high school sojourners to connect via a closed group on Facebook, online blogs, newsletters, and welcome-back picnics. Counselors can help sojourners to find help in the community and online so they can share their stories and connect with others.

Grief and Loss

Disenfranchised grief, separation, and loss often accompany the experience of reentry (Butcher, 2002; Lester, 2000; Selby et al., 2009; Werkman, 1980). In returning home, sojourners may be leaving new friends, giving up a sense of freedom and escape, experiencing a loss of idealized views in seeing new parts of the world, and losing the self they once knew (Smith, 2001; Werkman, 1980). La Brack (1993) referred to this phenomenon as reverse home sickness. There are additional factors that a sojourner may need to grieve with a counselor, such as a loss of adventure (processing both negative and positive experiences overseas), loss of friendships, loss of lifestyle, loss of purpose, loss of experience, or a loss of idealized origin culture. To address some of these losses, MHCs can encourage individuals to say a meaningful goodbye before returning home (American F'ield Services, 2013). Recognizing that returnees' grief and loss are not always acknowledged by their support systems (Lester, 2000), counselors can help them mourn and give voice to their feelings.

Depending on the individual, creative interventions may prove useful for processing grief and loss: bibliotherapy, music, cinematherapy, dance, photography, scrapbooking, journaling or blogging, collages, or other forms of self-expression. Finding ways to stay connected to the host country and maintain relationships can help individuals through the grief process. Other ways to integrate their experiences may consist of becoming a mentor or peer advisor to an international sojourner in the individual's home country, joining Global Ambassador programs, participating in civil engagement and social action, applying skills learned overseas to enhance professional development, presenting on their experience to others in the community, and incorporating parts of the host culture (e.g., music, food, language, media) into their daily life (American Field Services, 2013; La Brack, 1993; The Center for Global Education, 2012; World Learning, 2008).


Counseling research, training, and study abroad opportunities across cultures and countries have increased in the last 20 years (Gerstein, Heppner, /Egisdottir, Leung, & Norsworthy, 2009). According to Gerstein et ah, since 2000 the number of U.S. counseling practitioners who have participated in international activities has been growing. NBCC and CACREP offer support to other nations developing the counseling profession (Sandhu, 2012). With international counseling, training, and collaboration on the horizon, this research is timely and relevant. Knowing about the reentry experiences of counselors-in-training will help inform researchers and educators as the profession moves beyond this new frontier. Reentry impacts not only the counselor educators and counselors-in-training involved with these initiatives: as the world continues to become more globalized, it is likely that counselors will increasingly encounter clients who are sojourners.

Described as the fourth and fifth forces in counseling, multiculturalism and social justice practices are imperative topics on which to train future counselors (Bemak & Chung, 2011; Hill, 2003; Ratts, D'Andrea, & Arredondo, 2004; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). The 2009 Council for Accreditation for Counseling and Related Education Programs standards (II.G.2.A) identify diversity and multiculturalism as important dimensions of learning. International sojourning has been identified as one way to help develop multicultural competence (Gerstein & AEgisdottir, 2007). The counseling literature links study abroad immersion programs with growth in multicultural competency and social justice education (Diaz-Lazaro, & Cohen, 2001; Fawcett, Briggs, Maycock, & Stine, 2010; Mehta, 2011; Tomlinson-Clarke & Clarke, 2010; West-Olatunji, Goodman, Mehta, & Templeton, 2011). In a study based on journal theme analysis, Diaz-Lazaro and Cohen (2001) surmised that students in a multicultural counseling class benefitted from the cross-cultural contact experienced throughout the semester. Fawcett et al. (2010) found that counselors-in-training reported higher levels of multicultural competency as measured by the Multicultural Counseling Competencies Self Assessment (Arredondo et al, 1996) after study abroad in Antigua, Guatemala. Tomlinson-Clarke and Clarke (2010) recommended that similar counselor-in-training models be developed to increase multicultural competency. As more counseling research focuses on immersion experiences, it is ever more likely that counselors-in-training, educators, and clinicians will travel internationally.

Reentry presents both a pivotal opportunity for growth and unique challenges. MHCs can be a resource in exploring the new multicultural identity of returning sojourners. We believe it is imperative for counselors and counselor educators working cross-culturally to understand the reentry experience for themselves, their students, and their clients.


Like Pan et al. (2007), we advocate for a preventive and wellness focus on reentry to enhance individual and environmental protective factors. It is also critical for future research to identify how counselors and counselor educators can promote the personal growth and multicultural development that can emerge from an international sojourn. We offer the counseling profession several recommendations:

* Increase awareness about reentry. No matter what the context of the sojourn, reentry is an integral part of the transformational process. Yet it is often not recognized or understood by counselors, sojourners themselves and their support systems, or in the home and host cultures. Counselors and counselor education are a resource for identifying dimensions of reentry and sharing this information with individuals and organizations.

* Offer preparedness training. Sussman (2002) specified psychological preparedness as a simple way to decrease stress in reentry. To expand on the recommendations for sojourner training of Tomlinson-Clarke and Clarke (2010), we propose that reentry be incorporated into initial and ongoing activities, starting with pre-departure journaling. Reentry discussions would be beneficial before departure, during the sojourn, and upon reentry so that individuals and support systems can acquire tools to successfully navigate reentry. Counselors can help prepare clients and students for reentry by providing and promoting counseling and psychoeducational groups for both individuals and support systems; conducting interventions and workshops on the positive outcomes of reentry; and providing resources on reentry to clients, community, university, and family members.

* Encourage creative interventions. Helping clients and students find creative ways (e.g., photo collages, music, dance, letter writing, online journaling and blogging, scrapbooking, and videos) to process their experience is a vital part of counseling sojourners. To do so, MHCs and counselor educators need to be aware of the difficulty sojourners may have in communicating their overseas experience (Smith, 2001; Werkman, 1980), especially upon reentry.

* Recognize differing needs in reentry. When discussing counseling and educational services, it is essential to acknowledge the variety of groups who may experience reentry. MHCs can help clients identify presenting issues related to reentry by becoming aware of its impact and tailoring interventions to their unique needs.

* Increase understanding. Often the benefits and challenges are misunderstood during an international sojourn; it is not a vacation. After recognizing the impact of reentry, counselors and counselor educators can work on enhancing the transformative experience for individuals by, e.g., educating support networks and others involved in an international sojourn about the positive outcomes. Counselors and counselor educators may also benefit from identifying and reflecting on their own experiences, biases, and stereotypes about international sojourning.

* Advocate. Reentry education can be developed through partnerships with universities, companies, and organizations, providing workshops, curricula, and supportive psychoeducational groups. Counselors and counselor educators can also make reentry research a priority. Presenting on reentry at conferences and conducting research will increase the awareness, knowledge, and skills of those counseling individuals dealing with the impact of reentry.


Reentry research has methodological limitations (Szkudlarek, 2009) that make it difficult to draw conclusions about the prevalence, implications, and outcomes of sojourns. It is therefore essential for MHCs and counselor educators to systematically evaluate current reentry training programs. Which sojourners are most likely to benefit from which types of training or interventions? Qualitative research would be beneficial to better understand the experiences of international sojourners. Exploring emerging themes for reentry experiences would also provide a foundation for quantitative studies to isolate common factors in reentry adjustments.

Exploring the Sussman (2000) and Martin and Harrell (2004) models of adjustment for international sojourns would provide valuable information. Also helpful would be quantitative research on which reentry variables are most salient for which sojourner groups, though valid and reliable psychometric instruments must first be created and tested to enhance the credibility of reentry research. The process of an international sojourn could be explored with more longitudinal studies, baseline data, and adequate control groups. Questions arise as to whether findings can be generalized to the reentry experience of others (military families, missionaries, international students, Peace Corps volunteers, or international employees) and how these subgroups are similar or different. Given the Western focus of intercultural exchange and reentry, there is also a need to expand the populations investigated.

More research is needed on counseling and support services for an international sojourn. Martin (1984) suggested examining theories of reentry to test how similar or different cultural readjustment is to other life transitions. Comparing the initial expectations for the sojourn with the reality of reentry would provide valuable insight for program design and development. Research is also needed on MHCs and counselors-in-training and how their identity develops as they participate in an international sojourn.


Reentry has not been well-addressed by the counseling profession. Heightened awareness and preparedness for reentry, creative interventions, recognizing differing needs, increasing understanding, and advocacy are imperative for counselors whose clients are dealing with this unexpected and often most difficult phase of an international sojourn. Returning home from an international sojourn is more than returning home from a vacation. MHCs have a large role to play in exploring the psychological impacts of reentry and often a newly acquired cultural self. Past and potential sojourners will benefit from counselors being more aware of and participating in preventive measures in reentry education and interventions.


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Katie Kostohryz is affiliated with The Pennsylvania State University, Cristen C. Wathen with Montana State University, Pamela C. Wells with Georgia Southern University, and David Wilson with Idaho State University. Correspondence about this article should be addressed to Katie Kostohryz, Department of Education Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802. Email:
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Author:Kostohryz, Katie; Wells, Pamela C.; Wathen, Cristen C.; Wilson, David
Publication:Journal of Mental Health Counseling
Article Type:Report
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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