For some Middlebury College students, the hardest part about studying abroad was not adjusting to life in another country.
It was coming home.
Brian Fink said the feeling hits him in the library -- the palpable stress of his fellow students reminds him how much he misses the more contemplative pace at the French university where he studied last year.
Gale Berninghausen wonders if she will ever uncork the bottle of Spanish wine she is saving for an occasion that reminds her of the lingering, talkative dinners she recalls having in Madrid.
And Mary Hiebert feels it at unexpected moments. Once, she was out for coffee with her parents soon after returning from Ireland when she burst into tears.
"I had this vague sort of sadness," Hiebert recalled. "I didn't know what it was, or how to talk about it. I think it was a sense of loss."
Many of the 160,000 American university-level students who study abroad each year set off well prepared with language and cultural training. Experts say they are often less prepared for the jolt of coming home. What may strike friends as annoying disdain for the life to which they have returned may reflect real depression.
"Reverse culture shock can be more difficult than the classic culture shock," said Craig Storti, author of "The Art of Coming Home," a guide for returning expatriates. "People actually resist fitting back into their home countries, because it symbolizes going back to 'who I was.' They're so different, and they don't want to endanger this new self, to compromise this richer person they've become."
Returning Americans of all ages often find the pace of life harried, and their friends and families gratingly provincial. For students who have become accustomed to the more independent learning style typical of many foreign universities, their few remaining semesters back at U.S. colleges can feel awkward and over-structured. Many are moving from a big, glamorous city back to a small town such as Middlebury.
And these days especially, encountering anti-Americanism may well have shaken their political views.
A growing number of schools are expanding efforts to help returning students. Many, such as Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., have dinners and discussions for former ex-pats; some, including Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, offer "reentry" courses.
But administrators concede that they are not always sure how best to help.
"I think the field as a whole is struggling with this, to really pinpoint what it is students are feeling," said Cori Filson, director of international programs at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which is developing a course for study-abroad students with a post-trip component.
At Middlebury -- where more than half of about 2,350 students spend time studying in another country -- Fink, Berninghausen and Hiebert were part of a group of students who gathered over lunch recently to talk about their experiences returning from a transforming year or semester abroad.
They discussed their frustration dealing with others who could not understand how they have changed, or whose worldviews they see as limited. They also acknowledged that their attitudes may have irritated friends and family.
Berninghausen admits that covering her dorm room with memorabilia from her Spanish trip alienated at least one friend. She has tried to bite her tongue and not tell too many travel stories.
"They're very excited about [their travels] and want an audience," Filson said. But friends who have stayed home "are kind of like, 'Let's move on,' because they haven't shared that experience."
David Macey, who oversees Middlebury's off-campus study programs, said many difficulties are academic. Abroad, students commonly find a more independent curriculum and study style. When they return, a regimen of assignments and quizzes can feel insulting.
Studying abroad "is the first time in their lives they have ever been alone," Macey said. "I have a sense that many of them don't fully readjust to the kind of continuous assessment and over-control . . . that they return to."
Another struggle is politics. Joyce Boss, who has been teaching the reentry class at Wartburg since 1995, said students often return simultaneously more appreciative and more critical of the United States. It is a combination they have trouble expressing to classmates, and the result is "self-silencing and frustration," she said.
"Coming back, I had to explain myself," said Fink, originally from the Detroit area. "It was hard to explain to Americans that you can be American and still be critical."
Macey says students usually move on as they turn their attention to future plans, which often evolve in light of experiences abroad. Fink, for instance, intends to return to France for graduate studies.
None of the students said the difficulties made him or her regret studying abroad.
Said Hiebert: "It was like, that was a wonderful thing I did, and now it's over, and now I'm going to grieve for it for a while."