You Never Really go Home Returning from an International Service Trip

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Samantha Gisleson


It was a few days after I had returned, but my mind was still in Costa Rica. Returning from Costa Rica was infuriating; I found myself actually angry that people were just going about their normal daily lives while refugees in Costa Rica were going without water. I began to feel hopeless, like there was nothing I would ever be able to do that would help to resolve the injustices in Costa Rica, let alone the rest of the world, so I began to go about my normal routine. I went to class, hung out with friends, and did homework like I normally would, but this time I felt like I was walking in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes when we take time to slow down and think about a given situation, it can be too painful to deal with, which is why people often try to return to their “normal” lives rather than facing what they just experienced by continuing to think and talk about it. The experience of being in another country, living and serving with its people, and embracing its culture, is an experience that changes you. Stumbling over garbage and gagging on the smell of the dump while walking through a Nicaraguan village in Costa Rica changes you. When you return from service abroad, you don’t return to the same home you once knew. Everything you learned, saw, heard, and smelt stays with you. It impacts how you think, act, and perceive the world around you; quite like trauma.

Debriefing and making sense of past experiences can help students to form creative ideas and can also prevent students from simply slipping back into their normal routine and unintentionally letting the thoughts and plans for action become memories. When organizing international service trips, the organizers always plan pre-departure activities that will prepare students for what will occur on the trip, but nobody prepares you for coming home. Nobody prepares you for feeling like a stranger in your own home. This is why a space is needed for students to gather when returning home; a space in which they can debrief and reflect. The first step in creating this space is to build the foundations. Trauma research, such as healing justice can be part of that foundation. Another part could be pulled from existing travel models, such as the Jafari model. Helping students to find meaning behind their experiences can help them to better process what they have seen.The type of spaces I am looking for are difficult to build, and will require creativity and careful planning to be strong and sustainable. Trip leaders will need to put as much thought into post-trip sessions as they do into planning the activities that will take place on during the duration of the trip. The materials needed to create this space already exist, now they just need to be put together to create it. 

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How to Cite
Gisleson, S. (2020). You Never Really go Home: Returning from an International Service Trip . Undergraduate Journal of Service Learning & Community-Based Research, 9, 10–18.
Reflective Essays