Long way home

Marta Hunegs ’07 was meeting with her English teacher to discuss an essay. Her teacher blinked, and Hunegs started sobbing in the English office. Her teacher’s eye shadow reminded Hunegs of the make-up her host mother wore, Hunegs explained to her surprised teacher.

“It was really embarrassing,” she said later, laughing to cover up her tears. “I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop crying.”

Students who return from a school year abroad must readjust to renewed restrictions, the loss of their foreign families and friends, the rigor of Harvard-Westlake and the feeling of isolation among the friends they left when they went abroad. While some students find the transition nearly seamless, other students find reconnecting to the family and friends they left behind more difficult than the initial departure.

When Hunegs returned home from her school year abroad in Rennes, France, she felt disconnected from her friends as well as extremely depressed.

“France became a part of my life, and reintegrating when I came home was a lot harder than actually going away,” Hunegs said. “I really felt like I had found my niche there.”

Hunegs felt the full support of her family and friends who wholeheartedly welcomed her home, recognizing her need for space while attempting to make the transition easier.

“They all knew I couldn’t just relinquish the past nine months, and I always knew that they would be there to support me during the hard days,” Hunegs said.

The school has no program to deal with readjusting coming back from a year abroad, because no major problems have arisen, school counselor Luba Bek said.

“We do nothing specifically unless asked,” Bek said. “I’ve spoken to a couple kids, and it was brief. Time is the answer, like most adjustments.”

Jeff Hartsough ’07 readjusted to his old life without much difficulty. Still, he missed the friends and temporary family he had left behind.

“It’s strange not having a brother anymore,” Hartsough said. He and his Chinese brother, who were the same age, became best friends in China, he said.

Hartsough’s bond in his Chinese family was painful to leave behind. By the end of his year in China, he felt equally close to his two families, though in different ways.

Hartsough felt he made the adjustment upon returning home easily.

“It’s not like you forget about the American way of life when you leave,” Hartsough said.

Like Hunegs, Alex Heard ’07 ventured to Rennes for her junior year with the hopes of experiencing the independence of living away from home and immersing herself in a new culture.

Heard has had little difficulty readjusting.

“My friends quickly caught me up with what I had missed last year, and things just went back to the way they had been,” Heard said.

Along with the support of her friends, Heard also felt the comfort of her family upon transitioning home.

“If anything, going away brought my family closer together,” Heard said. “We have become stronger and I feel as thought I can talk to them about anything.”

Hunegs, Hartsough and Heard said they will always feel a deep connection to their host families and friends abroad, and the valuable life lessons learned have shaped their lives in unimaginable ways.

“I can’t wait to travel more in Europe next summer,” Hunegs said.

“Everyone has different experiences that shape their lives in high school,” Heard said. “I just took the right fork in the road instead of the left.”

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