NWRC gives former exchange students a place to share stories

Elika Roohi/Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
February 12, 2013

This weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Juneau to attend the Alaska chapter of the Northwest Returnee Conference on Education Abroad. NWRC is hosted in Portland, Ore. every year, and this year the study abroad directors at the UAF, UAA and UAS campuses held an Alaskan version in Juneau, inviting former exchange students from around the state to talk about their experiences abroad.

The focus of the conference was to reflect on experiences abroad and learning how to make it a valuable part of your life after coming home, rather than compartmentalizing the few months of culture, language and adventure. From the outside, it seems like that wouldn’t be a huge problem, since most study abroad experiences end up being incredibly important. But since I’ve been home from Jordan, I haven’t spent that much time reflecting on my year overseas. After about a month of being home, the stories got old and school started got busy and then suddenly I had been home for eight months.

Less than two percent of college students study abroad during their time at university. And I get it: it’s expensive, it will put you behind in school and, oh man, it’s an emotional roller coaster from the second you decide to go until months after you come back.

Before I left on exchange, I was prepped about the four stages of settling into a new culture: the honeymoon phase, where everything is new and wonderful; the culture shock phase, where everything is frustrating and tough to figure out; the acceptance phase, where you finally start to understand what’s going on where you’re living; and the assimilation phase, where you start to get it.

What no one told me is that coming back is the same. At first it was nice to be back in the states where no one yelled rude things at me in Arabic and I didn’t have to wait for the hot water heater to warm up enough to shower and there were no surprise marriage proposals at the store. But after a few weeks, it was tough to be back in Alaska. And then life got busy, and I just accepted that I was at UAF again, editing the paper, hanging out in the Wood Center and going to classes on lower campus.

This weekend during NWRC, I finally felt like I started to assimilate.

In Jordan, the assimilation happened close to the end of my semester. I had been working at a Palestinian refugee camp teaching English, and when I was walking to the bus stop one of my students ran up to me and gave me a note written in beautiful broken English that we had been working on together.

It’s easy to accept where you are, to tolerate and understand it.  But it’s tougher to feel like you belong in a place.

I talked about Jordan more this weekend than I have in the last eight months. There were about 30 of us that showed up in Juneau with a myriad of experiences, and we did nothing but reminisce. And something about talking through it all cemented something for me that’s been floating unattached since June.

One of the first sessions at NWRC was practicing your ‘elevator speech,’ the short spiel you give to someone when they ask you how your time abroad was and they want to hear more than ‘great’ but less than your life story.  We practiced with three different partners, and all three times almost everyone went over the time limit.  And maybe this was the point of NWRC and maybe it wasn’t, but hearing so many different introductions of so many different experiences made me realize the value of being a returned student: the storytelling.

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