A Counselor’s Advice on Adjusting and Processing Being Home From Study Abroad Due to COVID-19

A Counselor’s Advice on Adjusting and Processing Being Home From Study Abroad Due to COVID-19

At Greenheart Travel, we work to prepare our travelers for many aspects of the abroad experience, from culture shock and language learning tips to lessening their carbon footprint. But, we couldn’t have anticipated the outbreak of COVID-19 and its effects on international travel. In March, Greenheart made the difficult decision to cancel all current programs and require travelers to return home.  

While thankfully our travelers around the world returned to their families safely, they’re now navigating the challenging experience of readjusting to life back home, which is likely much different than they remember leaving it.  

To help provide guidance for our returned high school abroad students, we called upon the help of Greenheart’s counselor, Ellie Bucciarelli. Buccarelli, a licensed counselor in Illinois, has been supporting exchange students and host families with Greenheart since 2011. She’s also had experience as an elementary school teacher and Chicago Public Schools case manager and worked at Shanghai American School, P.R. China for five years, part of which coincided with the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.  

In a recent live re-entry webinar, Buccarelli walked our returned high school exchange students through the stages of grief and explained that while each person handles change differently, their reactions and emotions upon returning home could possibly mirror those stages. She also answered student questions and provide guidance on how to adjust to life back in the U.S. during this unique time. 

Though Buccarelli was speaking to an audience of high school students, her advice is applicable to anyone whose life has been altered due to COVID-19. We can all find comfort in her advice and a way forward in this “new normal.”  

Here are some of the questions and answers we discussed in the webinar: 

What are some unexpected feelings I might experience that I don’t realize are related to this big change? 

  1. Irritability/being short with people. You went from having more freedom, creating your own new chapter for yourself, and all was going well. Now you are home earlier than expected and have to social distance. A lot of freedom has been taken away quickly.
  2. Not settled. It’s hard to settle in when you cannot go back to your own life here. Tired of other people talking about Covid-19? You may feel you have a lot more that you lost than others and just don’t want to keep hearing about it. It’s best when you have these feelings to take care of you first so you can be a family member. Your family members at times will need support as well. Take time to create a new (though temporary) routine, eat right, exercise, shower/wash face and hair, put on something that you feel good in (one can only wear PJ’s for so long), offer to cook a meal once a week, suggest a new game or an old favorite for the family once a week, limit all media to 15 minutes twice a day (yes really) do school work if you have it, find a good book to read or hobby you will commit to. Start making a list of new goals/accomplishments for when Covid-19 is in your past and you can move forward. 

I’m home with my family and friends, and I want to talk about my experience and how disappointed I am about the things I didn’t get to experience, but I feel like nobody wants to talk about that because everyone only wants to talk about the virus. None of my friends can relate to me. How can I explain to them how important it is for me to share my experience? 

It sounds ideal to talk with friends about your experience, but it may not be the right time. Everyone of grieving in their own way right now. This may be a time you rely on your exchange friends, a trusted family member, and your closest friends who you know you can depend on. It’s not going to be as it would be had you returned under normal circumstances, and that’s really hard. 

How do I talk about my disappointment of returning home when I feel like no one can relate to my situation? 

Talking with someone you trust is key. Ask them if they can be a listening ear and let them kindly know you do not need any answers or for them to fix anything, but to just listen. It can be very helpful to talk it out without getting any response. Don’t keep it inside. It will only get bigger.  Keeping in touch with your Greenheart friends or other exchange students going through this same situation can be helpful too. Only be careful if you feel someone is bringing you or a group down too much. Greenheart is here to listen if you need someone as well.  We cannot change anything about the situation, but we are here for you. 

When I try to talk about my experience, people don’t want to listen or cut me off and say “You should be happy you’re safe” or “you should just be happy you got to go at all.” How do I mourn the loss of this lost time? 

Allow yourself to grieve. Everyone is grieving their own losses right now. Allow yourself time to be sad, angry, ask, “Why”? and take time for yourself. 

I really miss the new culture that I got to experience, how do I get to integrate back into a culture that is so fearful or so different than I remember it being? 

You are not going to experience repatriation as you would have had Covid-19 not been impacting your life. It may take longer to process since you are grieving both your program and a “normal” life you would have at home here in the States. Keep it simple for yourself. Take time, talk with your friends and host family while easing back into life here. Be kind to you. 

My family is all really worried about what’s happening with the virus, but I don’t understand why I needed to come home. 

It’s so hard to understand the rationale to repatriate when you felt fine where you were. 

Why expose yourself on the plane or while traveling to different airports? Why not stay put because you felt safe? The United States Covid-19 numbers are extremely high so why would I expose myself to this? Can’t people see I was safer where I was?

For many of you, these questions may be circling in your head. You are not alone. Ultimately, we want all students home with their families. Many countries have closed or are in the process of closing their borders, for example, there are no flights between Argentina and the USA until September 1. Flights are being canceled. If you or one of your family members got ill, there may not be a way to get you to your family or your family to you. Economically, many families around the world are suffering, losing jobs, etc. and may not be able to host you in their home in the future. US Embassies and the Department of State might be unable to provide support to Americans who chose to stay abroad despite their warnings to come home. This, long term could be very upsetting, more upsetting than having to end your program early. Being home where you have the permanent support of your family and government should you need it is the best place for you right now.

I’m just so worried I’ll never this experience again. How can I calm down those fears that this was the last possible time I’ll ever be able to do what I did? 

Your being abroad for the program was one chapter in your life, and most likely a big one you will never forget. It’s up to you to move forward to decide what your goals are and to plan the steps of how you will achieve them. For some of you, it may take until university. For some, after university. But either way, if it is important for you to travel and live abroad, then there will be another time for you. You will write another travel abroad chapter for yourself. It may be in the same place, or somewhere completely new. 

I feel like I was making so much progress with myself, and with my host family, and with my language skills, and now it’s like none of that effort was worth it. Was it worth it? How can I know that it wasn’t all for nothing? 

It may feel like it was not worth it now, after leaving quickly and not being able to complete your year. You may have had many goals not accomplished and activities planned. However, you have accomplished a lot more than a year ago at this time. You got on that plane, headed to a host family, new school, and new friends. You had a chance to be challenged, to make mistakes, to make memories-to grow. You most likely see things differently than you did before you departed last year.  

If you have more questions about returning home due to COVID-19, please consult our COVID-19 FAQs.

To learn more about returning home, we recommend these blog posts:


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