I’m home. Now what?

Posted by on Feb 16, 2014 in Featured, Home, U.S.A. | 11 comments

Nine months of traveling and volunteering changed my life.  So, how am I supposed to go back to “life as usual” now that I have returned home?  I talked extensively with others about “reverse culture shock” before coming back and I was a bit nervous about how it would affect us.

Life on the road

Life on the road


Life back in Chicago

Life back in Chicago

According to several online resources, reverse culture shock or “re-entry” is defined as a common reaction to returning home from travelling abroad for an extended period of time. It is an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to the initial adjustment to living abroad. Symptoms can range from feeling like no one understands you or how you’ve changed to feeling panicked that you will lose part of your identity if you don’t have an outlet to pursue new interests that were sparked abroad. Your reactions to re-entry may vary, but common signs are: restlessness, rootlessness, boredom, and depression.

Should we worry about being stricken with Reverse Culture Shock?

Should we have worried about coming down with Reverse Culture Shock?

Does this sound like a disease to anyone else?  I feel like this is a list of side effects that a person may be stricken with after taking the wrong dose of medication.  Needless to say, I was expecting the worst possible emotional transition upon returning home.  And, while there have certainly been days where I feel sad or misunderstood, coming home has been easier than I originally anticipated.  If reverse culture shock is an illness, I seemed to have stumbled upon the antidote. 

Can we ever feel a part of American culture again?

Mike blending into a completely different culture

Mike and I have officially been back in Chicago for 4 months now – almost half of the amount of time that we traveled.  And, as luck would have it, the stars have seemingly aligned for us to make a smooth transition home.  Mike got his old job sales job back, just a different territory.  We moved back into our condo and found it to be in even better shape than when we left it.  Our friends and family have been welcoming and warm and most people even ask us about our trip.  These factors have certainly eased our re-entry process.  But the reason that I have been able to avoid the lengthy list of intense reverse culture shock symptoms has been because Mike and I have figured out a way to incorporate our journey and experience into our lives in Chicago.  We have decided to try our hand as entrepreneurs and strive to help others experience the amazingness of volunteer travel even if they cannot take an extended amount of time off.

Dinners with family have helped ease our re-entry

Dinners with family have helped ease our re-entry

Before you start listing all the reasons that starting our own volunteer travel business will not work, I will do it for you.  For starters, there are about a million other companies that place volunteers with international projects.  And, while we have worked in the business world for years, we have never started our own.  And even though we had an incredible 9-month experience that involved both travel and volunteering, we have never worked in the industry.  I could continue… but I won’t. 

Despite all the logical reasons that we should not take the plunge into this new venture, every bone in my body is telling me that this is EXACTLY what we should be doing.  Mike and I truly believe that there is a way that we can help other people experience cultural immersion through international volunteer travel and service learning.  We spent every day of our 9-month journey allowing our experience to mold and shape our perspective.  And, we now want to spend our future helping others partake in a similar adventure. 

Mike spending time at Royal Seed Home orphanage

Mike spending time at Royal Seed Home orphanage in Ghana

Mike and I learned a lot about the volunteer travel (voluntourism) industry while on our trip.  Voluntourism allowed us the opportunity for the true cultural immersion, relationship building, and service learning that we would not have otherwise experienced on a typical trip.  However, we also learned about all of the problems that riddle this industry.  Many of the current companies that place international volunteers charge the volunteers exorbitant amounts of money (we are talking +$3,000 for one week) and give very little to the non-profit partner.  Other organizations work with hundreds of NGOs but have very little understanding of the community’s needs or of the projects themselves.  Still, others promote volunteer trips by using “poverty tourism” or by framing western volunteers as “saviors”. This creates unrealistic expectations and potentially causes harm to the very organizations that volunteers think they are helping.  Oftentimes, these short-term volunteer placements benefit the volunteer more than the international non-profit.

Kat contributing to worthwhile hut building project

Kat contributing to a worthwhile hut building project in Zambia

What was equally concerning to Mike and me was that even though we entered into the trip with the best of intentions, we realized that good intentions were not enough to guarantee having a good volunteer experience.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that half of our projects were not ideal.  There were times that we showed up after paying to volunteer and the local organization asked us for money.  We were shocked to learn that the volunteer placement company did not give ANY money to the non-profit we were working with.  There were other times that we felt utterly useless because there was not a true need for a short-term volunteer.  We felt frustrated and powerless that it was so difficult to find a volunteer placement company that we could trust.  The industry is fragmented and it is nearly impossible to differentiate the companies that are truly trying to do good from the ones after the almighty dollar.  So we decided to throw our passion, effort, and desire to serve into Unearth the World – our new social venture focused on pairing volunteers with short-term, community driven service-learning experiences.

I will be spending my time indoors creating a new social venture instead of outside in this weather.

I will be spending my time indoors creating a new social venture instead of outside in this weather.

We are beyond thrilled that as our 9-month trip ends, a new journey begins.  Sure, I am no longer traveling to unknown, exotic areas on a daily basis (unless you count the fact that I have to brave the CTA to get around the city).  But, that is OK because we are trying to take our experiences and key learnings and channel them into “normal” life back home. 

Now that we have been back home for a few months, I have been able to view our return to Chicago as a way to discover new challenges and adventures and to hopefully bring others along for the ride.  Mike and I are starting this company as a way of connecting others with great experiences but also as a way of continuing our journey.  Every minute that I spend working on this new venture helps me to battle reverse culture shock because I do not feel cut off from our trip. Thinking about our travels on a daily basis and working to curate similar experiences for others has been so cathartic, exciting, and empowering.  I cannot wait to unearth the possibilities!

We hope to continue the adventure and continue to unearth the world

We hope to continue the adventure and continue to unearth the world

Authors note:  Mike and I created this blog to share the details of our adventures on the road and we will continue to share about our new endeavor. But, I wanted to give fair warning to my Mom, Grandma, and our five other regular followers that we hope to transition this blog into a company website.  While we will continue to write about travel and volunteering, we also hope to speak to the voluntourism industry.  Stay tuned and thank you for your support!!


  1. Katie. The culture shock when returning is very real. I thought that I was the only on that experienced it. I found it more difficult to adjust to coming back then I did going abroad. Best of luck with your new business, it sounds amazing.

  2. thank you for your honesty and sharing your reverse culture shock experience. it will take time to readjust, kinda like a scuba diver has to come up slowly to avoid getting the benz. can’t wait to learn more about your new venture. i think you brought up a good point about “poverty tourism”. we have to look at volunteering not as westerners coming in thinking we know more, but go into the experience with our glass half full, and allow the people we serve to teach us something in return.

  3. This should be a lot of fun! Good luck…. I love the warning given to Grandma on the last paragraph!

  4. How exciting! Good luck!

  5. Good luck and best wishes. I know you two will get ‘er done!

  6. What an awesome way to give back again…. Best of Luck!

    • El evento está bien si eres potencial cliente o has empezado en el mundillo reemnnteiecte. Al segundo año o así empiezas a ver con otros ojos estas ferias y muchos congresos, donde lo que se cuenta casi siempre lo conoces de haber seguido la actualidad mediante blogs, etc.

  7. Your commitment and loving desire to help others will carry both of you up the steps to success with your new venture!!

  8. Bravo!!!!!!

  9. Good for you! Best wishes as you embark on this new (ad)venture!

  10. So amazing and inspirational. I know you guys will succeed in this 🙂 And you have all of our support along the way! xoxo

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