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International Student Reentry and Returnee Ministry: An Overview

Returnee Reality: The Chinese government released its plans of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in August, 2011 to attract at least 500,000 overseas Chinese scholars from 2011 to 2015 to “achieve technological breakthroughs and boost the country’s hi-tech and emerging industries.” This ambitious scheme is no different from a similar plan when 130 years ago, in 1881, the remnant of the first 120 young Chinese students sent to America were recalled. Although their academic and experiential sojourn was aborted after 10 years in the United States, they returned to modernize China and later impacted the revolution of 1911, led by Sun-Yat-Sen, that birthed the Republic of China.

The far reaching influence of that first group of student returnees in 1881 continues to be repeated with each generation of returned scholars and students around the world. The Communist Chinese revolution was influenced by students returning from Russia. Returnees will greatly determine the direction and development of their nations.

Reentry Reality: Although the concept of and term, “reentry,” was not known when the first group of pioneering students returned to China, their experience of some of the realities of reentry is documented in China’s First Hundred: Educational Mission Students in the United States. When author Thomas E. LaFargue visited with a few of the remnant in 1940, he recounts, “I realized how profoundly their ten years’ sojourn in the United States had affected their lives they were unique in their accomplishments so much so that they remained apart from the swirling currents of Oriental life around them . Their experiences had made them strangers in their own land and to a marked degree they had remained strangers (for 60 years) . Always in talking to them and being with them, I felt this apartness they served China faithfully and magnificently but more as foreigners employed in the Chinese service than as Chinese . Being with them I recalled Yung Wing’s determination to so saturate the students with an American viewpoint that they would be able to overcome the hostile atmosphere which would always surround their efforts to introduce Western technology into China perhaps Yung Wing realized that this was the only way in which the students would ever be able to resist the inertia of Chinese life.” LaFargue’s perceptiveness has implications for returnees today and in the future and transferable principles to apply in returnee ministry and reentry preparation.

While the understanding of the cross-cultural transition experiences of newcomers to a foreign environment became popularized by the term “culture shock” in the late 1950s and 1960s, the idea of the phenomenon of “reverse culture shock” experienced by those returning home after living or studying abroad did not take traction till the early 1970s.

Social scientists, cross-cultural trainers, and others serving international sojourners began to recognize common features and challenges of unexpected readjustment by returnees including feelings of disorientation, despair and grief, deprivation and loss, disgust, disappointment with unrealistic expectations, disillusionment, depression, and other inclinations towards a downward sense of well-being or not fitting back into one’s “home” culture and social networks. These descriptions of feelings of cross-cultural entry and reentry transition stress are found within the hypothesis of both sociologist Sverre Lysgaard’s “U-Curve” and the Gullahorns’ “W-Curve,” which suggests the tension of a fluctuating readjustment process from “Fun” (honeymoon stage) to “Flight” (desire to return to host country) to “Fight” (critical of home) to “Fit” (satisfied with settling back into home culture, community and company).

As reverse culture-shock, or “reentry” of international students became a growing concern for international student advisers and US educational institutions, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the US Agency for International Development (AID) began to invest in initial programs and services to understand and address the issues of appropriate transfer of knowledge of US educated foreign students during the early 1970s and into the 1990s. Part of the concern was the loss of talent by highly educated returnees who could not re-adjust sufficiently to life and/or professional integration back in their homelands. This author was asked by NAFSA to compile a report on 24 funded projects entitled, NAFSA Working Paper #24: Reentry/Professional Integration: NAFSA/AID Project Grants Summary Report 1974-1991.

The first national conference addressing the topic of international student reentry was the 1974 Transitional Experiences of International Students: Reentry/Transition Workshop held in Racine, Wisconsin. During the next two decades, interest and support by NAFSA in international student reentry and appropriate preparation for returnees grew and then plateaued.

Reentry Research: The growth of interest in the topic of “reentry” was fueled by research. As more and more articles on the general topic of reentry began to surface in the 1970s, there was no coordinated effort to collect the data for the convenience of research. Then in 1983, Dr. Clyde Austin of Abilene Christian University published the first book on reentry, Cross-Cultural Reentry: An Annotated Bibliography, which catapulted research and validated this new field of intercultural studies in the social sciences. Three years later Dr. Austin published Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings which unquestionably remains as the “Bible” on reentry in general, and offers a broad foundation for understanding and addressing reentry. A good complement to Austin’s Reader is The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti.

During the same period, a significant amount of effort was being invested in international student reentry by NAFSA, but there was no collection of the various endeavors until NAFSA Working Paper #24 (above) was produced in 1991, and International Student Reentry: A Select, Annotated Bibliography, also produced by this author, was published in 1992 by NAFSA. The bibliography, containing 200 annotated items including six related to China, and 30 publications that are not annotated, is the most comprehensive compilation of annotated references related to international student reentry.

The most recent PhD research thesis about Chinese returned students who embraced Christianity while studying abroad is Coming Home: A Study of Values Change Among Chinese Postgraduates and Visiting Scholars Who Encountered Christianity in the UK by Deborah Dickson in 2011.

Reentry Resources for Christian International Students: While the emerging reality of reentry impact upon returning international students was slowly gaining attention in the academic community in the 70s and early 80s, its discussion within the international student ministry (ISM) community was minimal and did not proceed from talk to strategic action steps. However, a question during a meal, “What are we doing to prepare our students for reentry?” was posed by Lisa Espineli Chinn at a Mid-Atlantic Regional Staff Conference of International Students Incorporated. The responses by the staff were jotted down on a napkin which became a seed that blossomed into Think Home: A Reentry Guide for Christian International Students in 1984. Think Home was the first reentry publication specifically designed for Christian international students and utilizes 200 questions to prompt returnees to reflect on their life abroad, changes they have undergone, and expectations for those returning home. It has been translated or adopted by international student ministries in several countries and adapted to their students and cultural contexts.

This publication has encouraged other ministries to also produce reentry publications, one of the most recent being Returnee Handbook: On the Road of Homebound Journey (for scholars and students returning to China) published by Overseas Campus Magazines/CEF-USA in 2008 (see the Resource Corner in this issue). The latest revised and expanded edition of Think Home was published in 2011 and is available at It includes the following chapters: Why Are You Returning Home?; Your Life in the United States; Who is Going Home?; Your Experience with Christ; Developing a Spiritual Support Group; Reentry Bible Studies; Potential Reentry Challenges; Tough Questions; Take a Break; Resettling In; Evaluating Your Ties Back Home; Who is Back Home; Welcome Home; Growing Spiritually Back Home; Serving God Back Home; Closure and Packing; God’s Instructions through Joshua; and On the Plane Home.

In addition to Think Home, Lisa Espineli Chinn has authored Back Home: Daily Reflections on Reentry, a 30 day guide engaging Scripture and the issues of reentry, and Coming to America/Returning to Your Home Country in 2011. They are also available through the Intervarsity online bookstore. Besides reentry publications, Lisa Espineli Chinn has also produced Customs & Culture, a simulation game utilizing role-play for returnees.

Nate Mirza’s 1993 edition of Home Again: Preparing International Students to Serve Christ in Their Home Countries was revised and expanded in 2005 and is published by DawsonMedia. Home Again offers a blend of practical insights from Nate Mirza’s decades of experience in international student ministry along with input from multiple visits and interviews with returned students to Asia.

New Horizons: Adjusting to Life Back Home, published in 2008 by International Students Inc, is another helpful resource designed to help returnee students based on extensive interviews, surveys and feedback from 70 overseas visit reports between 2005-2008.

Returning Home to China: An Equipping Guide for Chinese Christians Returning Home is published by China Outreach Ministries, and focuses on Discerning God’s Call to Return or Remain, Finding a Church Home, Planning for Your Personal Ministry, and Workplace Challenges.

Inspiring and insightful stories of Christian Chinese student returnees who contributed greatly to China’s development are found in Stacey Bieler’s Patriots or Traitors? A History of American-Educated Chinese Students (2004), and the 3-volume series Salt and Light: Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (2009-2011; see the book review in this issue).

Returnee Ministry: During the past 30 years ISMs have rejoiced in the significant number of students from China and Japan that have responded to the grace of the Gospel but have also noticed with growing alarm that many of the new believers experienced difficulty in reentry and in finding a Christian church where they felt like they fit; some have even disengaged from Christian fellowship after returning to their homeland. Thus, there was the production of some reentry preparation resources and the offer of occasional reentry and returnee workshops. There were no dedicated ministries for returnees until the emergence of the Japanese Christian Fellowship Network that was started by Japanese students attending the Intervarsity Urbana ’90 Missions Convention. JCFN was established in 1991 and sponsors an annual Equippers Conference for Christian Japanese returning students and has been developing a growing “receiving church” base in Japan. JCFN is the most advanced model of a “returnee ministry.”

In 2004 the first INK (International Students for God’s Kingdom) Conference was jointly sponsored by several ISMs to specifically focus on transition issues and preparation for returnees or those departing to another country. One of the results of networking at previous China Returnee Summits among ministries to Chinese scholars and students was the cooperatively planned VisionHome2011 returnee conference near Chicago. VisionHome2012 will be March 16-18 in the Philadelphia area. The need to assist returnees to connect with a Christian fellowship is being facilitated by ACMI-Link of the Association of Christians Ministering among Internationals (ACMI) and by some ISMs. Finally, there are some encouraging signs that the critical tasks of predeparture reentry/returnee preparation of international students, along with the equally important development of a welcoming and understanding home-country church, as well as the initiation of specialized returnee ministries, are being implemented.

Image credit: heavy loaded by micagoto, on Flickr

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Leiton E. Chinn

Leiton E. Chinn is the Director for Global Networking of ACMI and chairs the Lausanne ISM Special Interest Committee.View Full Bio