Immersion in a new and unfamiliar culture is often the most challenging aspect of an international internship. But according to International Program Officer Devin Graves, “returning home can prove equally, or even more difficult for many students.”
While many of our university partners offer strong re-entry packages for returning interns, students who volunteer with FSD independent of their college may not have access to the same level of support. With an eye on identifying the precise nature of re-entry concerns, a team of three master’s candidates in International Education Management from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA worked under Devin’s aegis for this spring to design and pilot completely new and comprehensive re-entry program.
As part of the three-person team, Miranda Meyer (who will also earn a dual degree MPA), Stephanie Ramin, and Sophia Iglesias had originally heard of FSD’s work through a professor who provided them with a target group of learning partners. “We saw a unique opportunity to blend development work and an international management purview,” Miranda says, “and the partnership with FSD made perfect sense from that vantage point.”
Over a period of four months, the trio became immersed in FSD’s approach on theoretical and practical levels. “While we enjoyed ongoing interaction with Devin, we were also able to participate in some of FSD’s community outreach activities, such as the Ambassador's meetup in March,” Sophia notes.
The team was in regular communication with Devin, Executive Director Lisa Kuhn, our international staff, and program alumni in order to study re-entry from various stakeholders’ points of view. “It was fascinating to learn how each of these interested parties experienced re-entry,” says Stephanie, “and to synthesize the information they shared into a cohesive document‒one we hope will serve future FSD interns and staff alike.”
In addition, returning Peace Corps volunteers were part of the project. “It was surprising that these people, who had spent two years abroad, often had no formal re-entry program,” Sophia says.
As the culmination of their project, the Middlebury team produced a 30-page toolkit designed to provide insight into re-entry issues‒and, more important, skills and techniques intended to allow returning students to navigate this sometimes demanding process. As well, the students created two slideshow presentations: one for FSD US-based staff to introduce the concept of re-entry to our international staff; and a second for the site staff themselves, so that they could hold re-entry workshops with participants before they leave the country where they volunteered.
The research and resultant toolkit focused on three overriding aspects of re-entry participation: articulation, reflection, and integration. Further, they identified four main components of re-entry management for returning students: professional development, civic engagement, academic adjustment, and emotional well-being.
Among the major findings, Miranda believes that “reflection should take place during all phases of a trip. It’s magical thinking to assume that everything will be fantastic and fun.” Stephanie agrees that “the reality is that there are challenges, which is precisely why you need a support system, which can include journaling and discussion with staff, as well as tempering expectations of the internship from the outset.” The group also advises against using the term “culture shock,” which can have a negative connotation, and believes that “cultural transition” is a much less charged descriptor.
Although the team began their project with the assumption that re-entry reflection is a concept that is universally valued, they were surprised to find that this is not always so. “Re-entry is something that not everybody believes in,” Miranda asserts. “Many people‒staff, administrators, and students alike‒tend to think that everything will be fine.” Because of this, the MIIS team was happy that FSD approached this project with a desire to focus on re-entry, viewing it as one of their priorities. Sophia adds,“We sought a holistic approach to re-entry, one that would begin even before students go on FSD trip. Among the questions they should as are, ‘What do I want to gain from this professional as well as personally? What skills do I seek to gain, and how may I apply them now and in the future?” Stephanie concurs that “when students engage in reflection from the very beginning, they will set expectations more in line with reality, and this will make the entire experience a better one for them.”