The difficulty of reintegrating into the world as you once knew it after an international education

I have often heard this argument: graduates of international schools struggle to adapt to non-international environments, including their own. After years in a type of international bubble, the transition to a local reality can be difficult.

The thought that stands out to me is the whole idea of adaptation to life after school. In fact – and this is what I am going to argue in this piece – that process being difficult might actually be a good thing.  

What if a great education causes a certain defamiliarisation by dint of the new concepts it evokes in the learner, the thresholds crossed, making it impossible to turn back to earlier pastures with the same views and feelings as one had in an earlier life, a little the way an adult returns to a childhood playground only to find that it is much smaller and fragile than what was in the imaginary prolongation of its existence in the memory? 

As we learn, we deconstruct, we go back over and open up (“analysis”  – literally in Greek “lysis” – to open  up, “ana” – backwards), we discover and rediscover in ways that cause us to become strangers in our own lands, whether we physically leave those places or not. 

I think of Jean Paul Sartre’s troublesome centre of consciousness Antoine Roquentin in his phenomenological (and, to me, his best) 1938 novel Nausea: it is a profound awakening in Roquentin which suddenly creeps up on him, meaning that he can no longer go about even the most banal tasks, like turning a door knob or turning the page of a book, without the action feeling different, as if he is now living his life through a different consciousness, outside of himself. 

My interpretation of the book is that Sartre is communicating the idea of learning powerful and profound new concepts. We start by seeing things as absolute, with an inner meaning, a “thing in itself”, which is pleasing and comforting, secure and peacefully simple; then a great teacher, or an extraordinary book (for me it was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I read at 17), or perhaps some profound experience, shakes our foundation, enlightens us, breaks down – even shatters – the mirror we had been looking at all along and leaves in the broken shards a world to be recreated, pieced together with difficulty.

This seminal conversion – like Siddhartha becoming the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree – is when we turn the page from the easy plenum of ignorance to the difficult path of knowledge. It’s a turning point.

And this is when a true education starts: we understand that the world might be noumenal, it might have its inner truths, but no one can get inside them, we will forever be outside of them. We can no longer stand on the side lines and judge the world with the naiveté of a child who lives in binary oversimplifications. Nothing is simple anymore. Nothing is as it was.

It’s a bit like a student discovering what historiography means and what it implies; or when students are first taught Plato’s allegory of the cave (and what a privilege to be the teacher who gets to take them into that place!): these learnings are levers that propel students into an entirely new understanding of just about everything. Threshold concepts are irreversible and transformative, integrative and mind changing.

So, yes, an international education does defamiliarise students from the world as it was before. It will be slightly strange to go back home after a powerful educational experience, whether it is international or not (the international dimension is really that phenomenon of defamiliarisation cast over questions of culture and identity). This is not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful, strange, painful and intriguing thing all at once. Let’s not forget, after all, the etymology of the word educate: ex-ducere – to lead out of. As we learn, we are led out of our former selves into our new selves, leaving the old self and the world as it appeared to that old self, behind.

(Image: 2024-04-03-17-53-50_The-Scream-Painting-Images-_-Free-Photos-PNG-Stickers-Wallpapers-Backgrounds.png)

2 thoughts on “The difficulty of reintegrating into the world as you once knew it after an international education”

  1. I wonder if this is why Ecolint students tend to come back to raise families in gva or why they flock to the same cities during and after university? Ecolint is like it’s own country it’s own culture it’s own world apart?

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Having graduated from Ecolint in 1987 and entered the work force in 1991, I was certainly surprised how strong the influence of nationality on multinational corporations was – and still is today. The composition of leadership teams (and the inner circle) remains heavily biased toward home-country nationals, despite the fact that the sources of revenue and equity ownership of large corporations is widely dispersed among countries. The ability to navigate and work with the dominant tribe is a skill worth learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *