As Adventist student missionaries return to school, native culture can shock

Most see new perspectives on home after a year away; irked by the supermarket

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

Jacob Mayor scrubs up at Béré Adventist Hospital in the North African Country of Tchad. Though he's only completed his junior year of college, the 23-year-old pre-med major was able to earn medical experience

Jacob Mayor scrubs up at Béré Adventist Hospital in the North African Country of Tchad. Though he's only completed his junior year of college, the 23-year-old pre-med major was able to earn medical experience

After a year away from his native Australia, Anthony Nagle came home mixing Danish words into his English.

The 24-year-old education major at Avondale College, who had served as a student missionary in Denmark, says he would periodically forget that "tak" and "nej" were not English words.

Ashlee Chism, who spent last school year teaching on the Marshall Island of Ebeye, is still trying to shake the habit of raising her eyebrows to communicate -- the standard method of saying "yes" on many Pacific islands.

For Nagle, Chism and hundreds of other Seventh-day Adventist student missionaries (SMs), returning home after a year of intense living can be an experience unto itself. For weeks or months returned SMs can feel caught between two cultures, exhibiting quirks or acting out social customs from half a world away.

The initial period after returning home is known as "reverse culture shock," the opposite of "culture shock," or adjustment to a new culture. Often the reverse can be worse because it's unexpected, even though many SMs have been warned about it in mission preparation classes.

For returning SMs, the cases of reverse culture shock can range from slight to severe, while others say they feel none at all.

After living in a country with a shortage of supplies, some can experience a moment of uneasiness at a grocery store. Others have given up rushing to appointments or have slowed their stride after having lived in a culture where time isn't as high of a priority as at home.

"I'm definitely walking slower," says Chism, 21. The junior at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, now leaves for appointments half an hour earlier than she used to. This allows her to stop for conversations that might take place along the way, a practice she picked up in Ebeye. While meeting with someone along the way might be an acceptable excuse for being late in Ebeye, not so at home.

Adan Rodarte, 20, a sophomore theology major at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, says he experienced "significant" reverse culture shock, which lasted about two months. After a year of teaching English at a language center in Ukraine, he returned home to the U.S. and says he had to adjust to how many resources Americans have.

"It was mindblowing to me," Rodarte remembers. "I still don't think I'm completely over the reverse culture shock."

Pre-med major Jacob Mayor might have had one of the more significant switches between cultures. The 23-year-old went from Southern University to working in Béré Adventist Hospital in the North African Country of Tchad for nearly five months. His host family cooked for him on the ground and he took showers out of a bucket.

"It was like living in biblical times with cell phones," he says.

Mayor says he didn't have trouble with reverse culture shock, but says the experience was "eye opening."

"You drive by a mall and look at all the stores filled with stuff that people don't really need. We have so much and we take it for granted so easily," Mayor says.

One element of reverse culture shock, some SMs say, is missing out on life at home the year they were gone, especially when some friends or acquaintances barely acknowledge they were absent.

"I've had people ask me, 'How was it?' and when I answer I can tell that they're really not interested," says Lemmy Lecinos, 21, who taught high school math and science on the Micronesian island state of Pohnpei.

Lecinos, who has completed his sophomore year at Southern, says he gives people specific answers only if a person asks specific questions. "Otherwise it's hard to summarize an amazing ten months in two or three sentences," he says.

Some Adventist colleges and universities hold events for recently returned SMs, an effort to connect those who share a unique experience.

"I'm kind of glad that Southern [Adventist University] has a re-entry retreat for us so we can all blather to each other about it," says Chism. Her challenge this fall, she says, will be getting to class on time with her new slower gait.

Many SMs say they spent their year swamped with the responsibilities of teaching, programming or assisting medical staff, only to return home and face being a student again. Some react by taking some down time, while others find a job or another way of keeping busy.

Sarah Peters got involved with ministry at her church after returning home from teaching 3rd grade in Yap, Micronesia.

"I was used to being assigned millions of things all the time," says Peters, 23, a recent graduate of Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. "It was good to come back and get involved right away."

Student Missionaries come from many countries -- from the United States to Australia to Germany to Argentina. To get involved, visit your local college or university student missions office or see