Coming back to the United States wasn’t easy. In a way, I never came back.
At least, if by the “I” I’m talking about is the me who got on a plane in Chicago in August 2008. That person didn’t come back to the United States. No, on the island of Ebeye, she was transformed into the person who got off the plane in Chicago in May 2009.
And that affected everything.
Twelve days after I came home to what felt like the coldest summer on record (it wasn’t), I headed to my summer job: camp. Now, I had worked at camp the three previous summers, so what would be different?
I had been warned about reverse culture shock and so I expected to happen, but it was mostly easy to ignore it or not recognize it. Why? I was surrounded by people who knew I had spent the last ten months out as an SM (and who kept commenting on my tan and weight loss). The girls’ director had also just returned from the islands as well. (We commiserated about how cold it was.)
Still, little things ended up bugging me. Once, I irrationally snapped at another staff member while we were cleaning the girls’ bathroom. Why? She’d removed a toilet paper roll that still had paper on it. Halfway through me saying, “Why are you wasting that?” I realized that I’d been thinking that we needed to use all we could of the toilet paper because, on Ebeye, it was super expensive. I ended up explaining and apologizing.
Despite the experience of the three previous summers, it felt like I was starting all over again. All my friendships had changed, mostly because I had. But it was a lot of work. I had spent ten months on Ebeye with the same group of fifteen to twenty people, all working toward the same goal of running the school and reaching out to the community. Now I was in the middle of a staff of forty-five, still united with the end goal of reaching campers. My world had basically doubled in twelve days. I had to re-learn how I fit into the staff, and how I related to the other staff members, especially those who had known the previous me. But I worked through the difficulties and made it through those first weeks and months back.
Five years later, I am still adjusting because, like I said, I never really came back from Ebeye. Part of my heart is still there, and I returned as a different and better version of myself. I am not a former student missionary, I am a returned student missionary.
When I returned to Southern Adventist University, I ended up making the friends who are now my closest friends. The experiences I had overseas ended up paying off when I was unexpectedly promoted to director of the crafts and ceramics department in the middle of that first summer back. A few years later, my camp director and his wife told me that the best decision I ever made was being a student missionary.
I couldn’t agree more.
By Ashlee Chism