Hi, I am Dr. Abeer Bar from KSA. I spent about 7 years in the US to complete my PhD at Indiana University Bloomington. My academic journey was exciting and had a profound effect on my life. It was unique and unexpected in many ways, for example I did not go through a normal culture shock experience. Although I lived in the US as a child, to my surprise, I experienced reverse culture shock when I came back as an adult. I then experienced reverse culture shock again after I graduated and returned to my home country Saudi Arabia. During my adjustment process I found supportive tools and met wonderful kind people that eventually indirectly shaped a new resilient identity.
The first step in my PhD journey
I packed my suitcases with toys, pots, and clothes in my preparation to start an exciting PhD journey along with my son and daughter. They were in grades 1 and kindergarten, respectively. My husband had a very good job in KSA, so it was impossible to leave. Hence, we decided to choose a long-distance marriage with a plan that my husband visited us every two months or so. Our decision was based on the fact that I was confident of my ability to handle being on my own. After all, I was independent, strong, highly motivated and I lived in the US before. I believed I could finish my PhD in a short period of time and be back in a couple of years. In short, it wouldn’t be a problem for me or my family “I can do it, why couldn’t I?”.
Challenges and difficulties (culture shock)
However, soon after settling and my husband returning home, I began to feel a little less confident. Living in a western country is very different. In comparison to life back home, I struggled with constantly being on my own. Before I came to the US, I relied so much on my support system, be it from my husband, family, friends, or nannies and helpers at home. Things were different for me in the US. I would shop for groceries, do the laundry, cook, throw out garbage, pay bills, and take care of my kids schooling all by myself. No one else was there. I was used to having everything ready and set and clean. I was frustrated because I wanted to make sure everything was done in the same way I was used to, and it was too overwhelming. On top of that, I had to be always ready as a student too, after all it was the reason we were all there. It was all a huge responsibility, and at one point I was scared and felt like giving up.
Most of my classmates were locals, and the majority were single. Can you imagine being the only mother in the class? At the beginning, I couldn’t connect with any of my cohort. I could not participate in the after-class group discussion as I had to hurry back home to my children. Since I was not part of the cohort’s social group, I was missing out on study sessions and sharing of class notes. I was afraid to fall behind in class and there were even a couple of times when I wanted to quit my program, but my supervisor was supportive and encouraged me to finish what I started. His understanding of my overwhelmedness was a huge relief for me, he had experience with international culture and went through a study abroad experience himself. Academically and socially, I felt left out. I realized my initial life and study abroad plan needed revision. I needed a survival plan and to take action.
Overcoming the hurdles
That all happened in the beginning, and I realized that this must just be part of the transition period. I then started to try to find other Muslims, connect with other mothers, and start reaching out to myself, which was something new to me. Although I communicated via email with an online mom group, I didn’t reach out to them after I moved to the US. They gave me great advice on schools and family residences, however, I didn’t connect with them after the move because they were not graduate students and thought we wouldn’t connect. I wish I had, it might have helped with the transition. Fortunately, within 7 years in the US, I was blessed to make friends with a few graduate student moms and they have been great friends ever since. I increased my social circle by joining the international student community, which helped me overcome difficulties on campus. The most important lesson I learned was how much communities meant to us and how valuable it was that they were available as a support system.
After that first tough year, my husband and I started to realize that our family relationships could deteriorate when our family was not together. Our kids came first and the experience showed us that they needed both their mom and dad in the same place all the time. My husband generously chose to leave his job and unite with us. I felt our family change, we appreciated each other more, and our family values took precedence much more than before. This was a big step for us, and I learned that the foundation of our support system is my own family.
Another realization, which came after connecting with other graduate student moms, was that I had to be more lenient with myself in terms of housework and chores and allow the help of my husband and people around me, even though it’s not like I was used too. Good enough is good enough (I have that as a magnet on my fridge). Since then, some of my burdens were relieved, and I felt I could start anew from home and continue my journey with less stress.
I finally started to feel more confident that I could finish my PhD!
Preparing to go home
I was familiar with the reverse culture shock associated with returning home to Saudi because I had experienced it before when I was young. I also had theoretical knowledge of the existing literature because it was also part of my doctoral research interest. My background knowledge helped my expectations but the reality is that no matter how much you prepare, going back home to your country will always have its challenges.
I started to prepare my children a year before we intended to move back. I told them that the experience was not going to be like summer vacation, all fun and gatherings and outings. I made sure that there would be more social obligations than before and that the way they dress, walk, talk, and more will be seen as different and that they should think carefully about their values and their surroundings before they made a decision. I prepared them for the worst scenarios and I believe their transition was a healthy one because of it. It took a few weeks but they made new friends, were happy in their school, enjoyed after school activities and looked forward to family gatherings. I was very happy with their adjustment process. My experience was a bit different and I felt I should have prepared myself better. It took me a longer time to adjust.
Reverse Culture Shock: The hardest part of going back home.
Changes in the workplace
I came back after many years to find that naturally the people that I networked with before were not in the same positions. I maintained connection with past colleagues while I was abroad and that served me well as I was hired a few months after graduation. However, the network I used to support my work was outdated and I needed to make an effort and engage socially to create a new one. That meant joining new business groups, reintroducing myself in my field and more time socializing and networking. I came back to an environment where men and women were working together, which was something that I wasn’t used to as I have previously always worked in an all female work environment. I had to wear my abaya and headcover all the time (which honestly wasn’t bad as it saved me from the hassles of choosing outfits every morning). With a new workplace comes the usual adjustment of understanding the institution’s goals, values and mission. The dynamics were different and the administration had a more diverse approach than what I was used to. One struggle of returning to work after a study abroad experience was adjusting to a fixed schedule. Before, as a student, I was mostly at home writing my thesis or attending classes no more than three times a week. Working, on the other hand, meant an 8 to 4 shift and then with my new job I also had weekends when I had to work.
Changes in society and the community
I left mid 2011 and came back early 2018, and since then, there has been an incredible amount of positive transformation in my country. Women are allowed to drive, transformation of education and training in an effort to develop excellent human resources, women in leadership positions, global and economical advances, the changes are so big and so small that even the color of our abayas changed! As a Saudi and a Saudi woman specifically these changes make me feel proud and blessed and witnessing them all at once was overwhelming.I had to make sure I was up to date and adjust to these positive changes. Literature on reverse culture experience highlights the process of the Sojourner’s adjustment to the changed community and adjustment of the community to the changed Sojourner. This means that not only has the community changed physically, socially and/or economically, but the experiences the student faced abroad has changed them too. I mentioned some of the changes I went through earlier. My new developed self had to find its place in society again. It was exciting and scary and felt similar to the panic I had when I moved to the US. I wanted to be a confident and strong member of my present/past home society, I wanted to have an effective role in supporting my country’s development plan “Vision 2030”. I came back for that exact reason and (like before) I needed a plan to support and help me succeed. I got the job, now I need to adjust and be at peace with myself in my present/past home. This time I was prepared, I knew it was going to take effort, I knew it was going to take time but this time my family was present and ready to support me. It did take time for me to change my habits and choose and adopt new ones. It was not easy but I was motivated by the knowledge that my stability was important to my children (even if it meant pretending some days). I was their guide to our present/past home.
How to overcome reverse culture shock
I was fortunate to meet moms who went through my experience before me. I met them through my kids after school activities, their kids also went through the transition and the parents found activities to have a positive effect on their transition. Their advice to me started off with a reminder to take my time and that adapting and transitioning will take at least 3 years. For me, it has been 4 years, and I have days where I feel great and other days where I feel like I’m still going through the process. They also mentioned attending various classes and workshops which will help with socializing and learning from the community. I took classes ranging from dancing, stitching to leadership and digitalization. I definitely feel like I am happier the more involved I am with the community.
For my children, I let them experience reverse culture shock in a way where they feel they are part of society and still maintain who they are. I allow them to practice the same activities that gave them comfort when they were in the US, like going out and playing outside. I initially felt apprehensive that some of their activities like biking to school might not be typical and strange to some, but I have to say that they are fortunate that the changes that happened in the country have been encouraging and supportive of their activities. They even developed a biking community!
One of the things that I believe helped my children’s transition is that I didn’t change my children’s education system. They continued to study under an American educational system. The main reason behind the decision was that they were both in high school, and I felt changing the system would affect their academic success and therefore affect their university applications. I also wanted them to be part of an international community where they can connect with other students who also developed their character by living in different cultures (and hopefully) still maintain their own values and personalities (they have made amazing friendships Alhamdulillah).
Additionally, we do keep in mind the importance of building a strong religious and familial foundation at home. We made sure that our home was the center. We don’t have help at home and everybody is involved in keeping the house running.
Eventually, I felt at peace and relieved that at my return I did not come back the same person as I was before I left. I changed because I experienced living abroad. It’s not only the society that has changed; it’s me that has changed and I had to find a new way to adjust, adapt, and acculturate. I accept and am proud that my path was not linear, I will always be unique and I will find my place in society as I am because my society needs my unique and creative outlook.
This time around, I felt that I dealt with it better than the first time I came back.
My main source of motivation
From the start, I knew that I wanted to come back home and create student leadership programs. The whole idea of getting a PhD was to make sure that I actually design quality programs built on experience and theoretical knowledge. I wanted to craft students’ journeys and ensure they have the tools that lead to their success. I wanted to have a decision-making position and constantly determining the skills and experiences that benefit the students in their ever-changing environment
For me, it’s always been about the students. Supporting and guiding them towards achieving their goals while ensuring they have the tools to succeed. I use the skills I learnt during my studies to give them a learning environment that teaches them how to be the best version of themselves without compromising their values and become leaders true to themselves and powerful servants to their country. For my studies to give me that opportunity is a blessing that truly makes me happy. I strongly believe that all this knowledge, education and experience is a gift and an amanah, and since Allah SWT gave me these blessings, I have a duty to make sure that they are used in the right way.
Messages for other mothers out there who wish to continue their education or career
I believe you will not only light up your own path but also your children’s. Whether you work or study, you are gaining knowledge and experiences everyday and, therefore, supporting yourself to become a better person and, eventually, a better mother as you support your children to become better people in the community. By going out and experiencing the outside world you understand more about the things that are happening around you, and therefore, you can prepare your children better for the world they live in. It is important to acknowledge that whether you are a stay-at-home mom or you work or study, it is a choice, and there is beauty and generous giving in each one of those roles. My choice to study abroad has been the best one I made. I am forever grateful to Allah for his guidance and support to be where I am today. My study abroad experience was an exciting journey that involved leaving the comfort of my home, studying until dawn, gaining new knowledge and experiences, meeting new people, learning about my strengths, my weaknesses, and becoming aware of the things that are most important to me. I learned that my family is very important, and appreciating them more came through this experience. The possibility of growing and adopting an exciting new and different identity through learning opened new doors not only for myself but also for my children. Simply put, because of the journey I’ve been through, it’s made me a better mother. I am a better person for my children, my husband, and myself.
Author: Tami Astie Ulhiza & Tera Wednes Oktireva Harsa