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Journal of Psychology and Theology

Copyright 2006 by Rosemead School of Psychology

2006, Vol. 34, No. 2, 153-164

Biola University, 0091-6471/410-730


Graduate School of Psychology
Fuller Theological Seminary

Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Pepperdine University

(Belay, 1996; Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995). The rise

in popularity is so great that the decades of the 1980s
and 1990s are known as the era of the short-term
mission boom (Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995).
Interestingly, the internet search engine,, yields 19,100 results for the search
term short-term mission trips. Many high school
youth groups and Christian schools host yearly international trips which offer opportunities for evangelism and service. Short-term mission trips are becoming an important aspect of post-secondary Christian
education. Thousands of American, Christian college
students participate in school sanctioned or required
international mission projects (Tuttle, 2000).
International trips are unique in that they involve
a series of transitions: cross cultural immersion,
adjustment to foreign culture and readjustment to
home culture. In the middle of the last century, psychologists began studying the effects of cultural transition (McClintock & Davis, 1958) and over the
years, research has shown that the cultural transition
process is associated with changes in values, communication style, goals, relationships, and worldview
(Belay, 1996; Guan & Dodder, 2001; Raschio, 1987;
Uehara, 1986). Recent work has focused on how cultural transitions influence identity (Guan & Dodder,
2001; Sussman, 2000, 2001, 2002). The current study
was designed to further explore how cross cultural
exposure influences the cultural identity of shortterm student mission participants.

This study explores the relationship between cross

cultural reentry and cultural identity in college student participants in short-term international mission
trips. Twenty undergraduate students from a Christian college participated in focus groups discussing
the question, How did your experiences on your
trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?
The discussion transcripts were coded, and analyzed
according to (a) frequency, the number of times a
theme was addressed; (b) extensiveness, the number
of people who discussed a theme; and (c) intensity,
the emotional strength of a response (Krueger,
1998). Negative reactions to home culture were the
most frequent, extensive, and intense themes, followed by themes related to cultural awareness and
personal growth. Other themes addressed adjustment and positive reactions to home culture. The
findings imply that participants in short-term mission trips experience challenges to cultural identity,
characterized by negative reactions. Recommendations for sending missions agencies are provided.

or centuries, missionaries have traveled

around the world sharing the news of salvation and bringing humanitarian aid to millions
of people. Over the last 20 years, missiologists have
noted a dramatic increase in the number of shortterm mission projects, due partially to technological
advances and improved accessibility to air travel

Authors are currently affiliated with the Headington Program in

International Trauma at the Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary. This manuscript represents a Masters Project completed under the mentorship of Cynthia Eriksson, Ph.D. Correspondence concerning this article may be
directed to Sherry M. Walling, Headington Program, School of
Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 180 N. Oakland
Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. E-mail:

Cultural Transitions and Reentry

Cultural transitions involve a series of major

adjustments. An individual leaves the familiarity of
his or her home to immerse in a foreign environment
that requires a different way of life and a new way of
viewing the world. The traveler faces the multiple



demands of adapting to different roles, a new daily

routine, an unfamiliar set of social norms, and an
altered global perspective. Each piece of the cultural
transition process involves a unique set of challenges
and adjustments. Reentry, the final phase of cultural
transition, is the process of re-adjusting to the home
culture upon return (Adler, 1981). Multiple studies
have indicated that travelers report higher levels of
distress during reentry than during the initial cultural
adaptation to another country (Adler, 1981; Moore,
Van Jones, & Austin, 1988; Sussman, 2000). This
experience is surprising to many travelers who happily anticipate reunions with loved ones and the return
to the comfort and familiarity of home. Corporate
and government employees returning from assignments abroad reported that reentry shock was more
difficult than the initial adjustment regardless of
location or type of assignment (Adler). Research
with American students returned from studying
abroad indicated that the length of time away from
the home culture is not related to the extent of reentry shock, implying that it is possible for those who
go on a short trip to experience substantial reentry
distress (Uehara, 1986).
Reentry research has examined business people,
federal employees, educators, high school and college students, military personnel, missionaries, and
international relief and development workers
(Austin, McDonald, & Austin, 1988). Past research
with college students has demonstrated that student
travelers report significant personal changes as a
result of cultural immersion experiences. Students
who went overseas experienced positive changes in
parental and sibling relationships and mixed (both
positive and negative) changes in friendships (Martin, 1986). Cultural transitions have also been associated with changes in views about dating, individualism, clothing, achievement-oriented behavior, as well
as clear, long-lasting shifts in perspectives on global
issues (Uehara, 1986). Overseas experiences result in
an increased awareness of world issues and of the
role of the United States in the international community. Students reported experiencing personal conflict when they became aware of changes in themselves and when they compared their home culture
to the culture they visited (Raschio, 1987).
Cultural Identity

Young adults are in the unique developmental

stage of identity formation. It is logical to predict

that international experiences have tremendous

impact during such formative times, particularly on
students sense of cultural identity. Cultural identity
is the mental framework through which individuals
understand their way of being, interpret social cues,
choose their behaviors, respond to their surroundings, and evaluate the actions of other people (Sussman, 2000). According to Sussman, culture is part of
the internal framework of an individual, and it
becomes a reference for self-definition and a way of
ordering social expectations and relationships.
A number of studies with college students have
highlighted the impact of cultural transitions on cultural identity. When Chinese students studying in the
United States were compared with Chinese students
who remained in China, cross cultural immersion
was associated with changes in values and cultural
identity (Guan & Dodder, 2001). Ward and Kennedy
(1993a) reported that subtle changes in cultural identity can be adaptive while abroad. They found that a
strong home culture identity was associated with
increased social difficulty among British citizens
residing in Hong Kong. Identity shifts may be advantageous for those permanently relocating to another
culture, but such shifts may not be advantageous for
short-term visitors (Sussman, 2000).
The changes that one experiences while abroad
contrast with the norms of the home culture, causing
returned travelers to feel that they do not fit in.
When people transition to a new culture, their cultural identity changes in ways that go unnoticed until
they return home and experience disconnection and
isolation, which are aspects of reentry that are experienced as overwhelmingly negative (Sussman,
2000). Awareness of shifts in cultural identity may
contribute to the over-all growth and functioning of
the missionary. Therefore, it is important to study
cultural identity and cultural transitions, because a
better understanding of these constructs could
inform pre-trip training, debriefing processes and
reentry support programs for both short-term and
long-term missionaries.

The life of the missionary is wrought with challenge and difficulty. On the field, many cross cultural
workers have been exposed to poverty, direct violence, indirect violence, life-threatening illness, car
accidents, crime, difficult living conditions, a heavy
workload, estrangement from family, and a number


of other personal difficulties (Carter, 1999; Eriksson,

Vande Kemp, Gorsuch, Hoke, & Foy, 2001). In addition to the field stressors, missionaries face the difficulty of continuous adjustment to new cultures and
reentry to the home culture. Many studies have examined cultural adjustment and reentry in missionaries
and humanitarian aid workers (Austin, C., et al.,
1988). However, most of the research has focused on
career missionaries rather than short-term missionaries. The cultural identity model has not been
explored with the short-term missionary population
and there is little research specifically on the reentry
experience of short-term missionaries, despite the
dramatic increase in the number of short-term mission trips (Lovell-Hawker & Hawker, 2004).
Focus Groups

Studies have used various scales to measure

changes in cultural identity (Armes & Ward, 1988;
Guin & Dodder, 2001; Ward & Kennedy, 1993a;
Ward & Kennedy, 1993b). Some utilized Likert
scales to assess the extent of identification with
home culture and other cultures. Participants were
asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed
with the following statements on a Likert scale, In
some ways I feel less American than I did before my
international assignment and I feel that I am a
more global or international person now (Sussman,
2001, p. 116). Although the findings of these studies
were useful in establishing the relationship between
cultural transitions and cultural identity, the range of
information that can be drawn from survey methods
is limited in scope. In order to contribute to a better
understanding of how cultural transitions affect cultural identity, the current study was designed
employing a focus group design.
Focus groups are particularly useful when the purpose of the study is to help generate a theory or when
the constructs are difficult to define (Henwood &
Pidgeon, 1992). As shown above, literature suggests
that reentry is stressful and that identity changes
appear to be an important factor in international
experiences, yet there has been little open-ended
exploration of these variables. Focus groups are particularly appropriate for this topic and population
because the design allows the participants to tell their
unique stories and to focus on the domains that are
most salient to them. Qualitative methods are more
sensitive to social context and detail and are appropriate research strategies when understanding is


more important than prediction and control (Nelson, 2003). Given the lack of qualitative work on this
topic and the need for a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between the constructs, a qualitative focus group design was employed.
Summary and Hypothesis

As the above discussion has shown, cultural transitions and their impact on cultural identity is an important area of research for those involved with the
increasing number of short-term missionaries. Further
research is necessary to understand the complex relationship between cultural identity and cultural transitions, especially in relation to reentry and reentry distress (Belay, 1996; Sussman, 2000). The current study
was designed for two purposes: (a) to qualitatively
assess the hypothesis that cross cultural reentry results
in cultural identity changes in participants of shortterm missions trips and (b) to explore the nature and
content of these cultural identity changes.

Participants were recruited from a private, evangelical Christian college in the United States. Twenty
students participated in three focus groups (5 male,
15 female). The participants ranged in age from 19 to
25 with an average age of 21.5 (SD = 1.07). Information on marital status and ethnicity was not collected
in an effort to protect the confidentiality of the participants. All of the participants were currently enrolled
as undergraduate students or had recently obtained
bachelors degrees, and all had previous cross cultural
missions experiences. One student had participated
in one trip; 12 students had participated in less than
five trips; 6 students had been on more than five trips;
and 1 student grew up on the mission field. Of the
students, 14 went on their most recent mission trip in
the summer of 2002; 4 went in 2001; 2 went in 2000;
and 1 went in 1999. The trips the students participated in varied widely in objective and destination. The
focus groups were conducted in May of 2003, which
was approximately eight months post-trip for most
participants. Trips to seventeen different countries
on five continents were represented in the sample:
Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Mexico
(3 participants), Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador (2 participants), China, India, Japan, Thailand, India, Russia,
Maldova, England and Australia. The majority of participants (n = 16, 80%) worked with children and



adults; 4 worked only with adults; and 1 indicated

working only with children. In general, the trips were
a mixture of humanitarian aid and evangelism. On a
seven-point Likert scale, ranging from extremely bad
to extremely good, 3 participants rated their overall
experience as good; 9 participants rated it as very
good; and 8 participants rated it as extremely good.
Data Collection Procedure

The colleges director of international missions

contacted students from two lists: (a) those planning
to go on trips the upcoming summer that had been
on past trips; and (b) those who went on a trip the
past summer for which he had current contact information. He contacted them by e-mail and telephone,
inviting them to a free pizza dinner and an opportunity to discuss their personal experiences on their
mission trips. The director indicated that scheduling
conflicts was the primary reason given by students
who did not attend.
The Human Subjects Review Committee at the
university where the students were enrolled reviewed
the research protocol and approved the data collection procedure. Teams of two graduate students
from a neighboring academic institution conducted
the focus groups. One facilitator took notes on participant responses, while the other led the discussion
based on seven discussion questions about the
nature of the missions and reentry experience. Participants responded in varying order to questions
and, in most cases, every participant responded to
every question. The focus groups were recorded
onto audio tapes.
On the day of data collection, the primary investigator introduced the participants to the focus
group format, including the use of audio recording.
The primary investigator also informed participants
of the intended use of the study results, as well as
the fact that they could leave at anytime during the
focus group. After providing informed consent, the
participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire. They were randomly divided into three
groups according to the color of the nametag they
received when they entered the room. The groups
were then asked to go into separate rooms for the
focus group discussion. In order to protect confidentiality the participants used self-selected aliases
throughout the discussion. These aliases were the
sole identifiers used in the focus groups. The participants addressed each other using the aliases, and

the note takers used the aliases to track the participants comments.
All groups discussed a uniform set of questions
presented in the same order (see Appendix A). The
questions were developed by the research team to
facilitate discussion of the students experience of
short-term missions work and of cross-cultural reentry. The set of questions was then evaluated by a larger group of researchers with expertise in the field of
international missions.
After data collection, a team of three graduate
students transcribed the audio-recorded responses.
The graduate students did not transcribe the sections of the tape that they planned to use for
research questions. Three portions of individual
responses were difficult to transcribe word for word.
In these situations, all three transcribers listened to
the difficult portions of the audio tape and used the
notes taken during the focus groups to decipher the
major content of the responses but not the exact
wording. In such situations, all three transcribers
reached a consensus as to the major theme or meaning of the content. None of the responses were
excluded from data analysis.
Data Analysis Procedure

The responses to each question were analyzed

separately. This article is based on the data collected
in response to the sixth question, How did your
experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of
your home culture? The first step of the data analysis procedure was to develop themes for coding. The
primary investigator reduced the raw narrative information into topic sentences by reading the transcript
line by line and copying the main thought(s) of each
response onto individual slips of paper. In most
cases, the participants exact wording was maintained. The second step was to sort the main
thoughts into thematic categories. Three teams of
three to four professors and graduate students with
expertise in the field of international missions sorted
the responses into categories according to the content of the responses. The categories generated by
the three teams were compiled into a master list.
Duplicate categories were deleted and categories
with a great deal of overlap were combined.
The master list of categories was refined into a
coding system which consisted of five general
themes. The themes were further divided into subthemes. Table 1 includes a complete list of themes



Frequency and Extensiveness of Subthemes Grouped by Node

Node and code names

Personal growth/learning (general)

Sense of purpose in home culture
Desire to enact change in home culture
Question of place in home culture
Identity challenge- social group
Identity challenge- personal
Identity challenge- ethnic
Positive spirituality
Vocational direction
Cultural awareness (general)
Appreciation of specific other culture
Positive hospitality of other culture
Elevation of other culture
Positive missions
Negative missions

Realization of American influence

Appreciation of home culture


(N = 156)

(N = 20)

% subthemes

Negative reaction to home culture


General anger at home culture

Negative home culture (general)
Negative home culture materialism
Negative home culture spirituality
Negative home culture sexuality
Negative home culture pace
Negative home culture hospitality
Negative home culture influence
Home culture to improve as model
Guilt about home culture
Comparative needs of home culture
Negative foreign identity

Negative reentry
Frustration (general)
Adjustment (general)
Reentry (general)
Positive reentry


Personal growth/learning
Cultural awareness/diversity


Positive/neutral reaction to home culture


% participants



1 5









and subthemes. The original transcript was then

entered into ATLAS.ti (Muhr, 1997), a data management program, and the transcript was coded line by
line using the identified themes and subthemes. Participant responses were coded according to content
and meaning within the context of the focus group
discussion. Responses were assigned the best-fitting
subtheme(s) and individual ideas were not assigned
more than one subtheme.
The coded themes were analyzed according to
frequency, extensiveness, and intensity (Krueger,
1998). Frequency was defined as the number of
times that a topic occurred in the discussion. Extensiveness was the measure of how many different participants discussed a particular theme. In extensiveness, the number of participants was the unit of
analysis; whereas the frequency analysis examined
was the number of statements coded. Intensity, the
third method of data examination, focused on the
emotional content of the responses. This analysis
attempted to note specific responses that were highly emotional, as indicated by the note takers in session or by the words used in the narrative. In addition, researchers took special care to note responses
that clearly articulated the sentiments expressed by
multiple participants, as well as outlier responses
only expressed by one or two participants.
The participants responses addressed five major
themes: Negative Reaction to Home Culture, Personal Growth/Learning, Cultural Awareness/Diversity, Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture,
and Adjustment. These five themes were broken
down into specific subthemes which were analyzed
according to frequency, extensiveness and intensity.
Negative Reaction to Home Culture

The Negative Reaction to Home Culture theme

consisted of 13 subthemes and was the highest in frequency and extensiveness. Participants expressed
negative reactions to several specific aspects of the
home culture: International influence, materialism,
hospitality, pace of life, sexuality, and spirituality. Students also discussed subthemes related to anger,
guilt about living in the home culture, desire to
disidentify with the home culture, awareness of the
shortcomings of the home culture, and the desire for
the home culture to be a better international role
model. Participants negative reactions were emo-

tionally intense, reflecting personal anger, criticism

and guilt.
The examination of frequency showed that 64 of
the 156 coded items were assigned to this theme
(41%). The most frequently mentioned subtheme,
general anger at home culture, was coded 16
times. Also within Negative Reaction to Home Culture, negative home culture (general) and negative American materialism were coded 10 and 8
times respectively. This indicates that negative reactions, such as anger and dissatisfaction with materialism, occurred frequently throughout the focus group
Most participants expressed responses coded
within the Negative Reaction to Home Culture
theme. The examination of extensiveness showed
that 9 of the 20 participants, or 45%, articulated
responses coded as general anger at home culture.
This code was the most extensively mentioned, especially by the male participants. Four of the five male
respondents (80%) expressed anger toward their
home culture, whereas 5 of 15 (33.33%) of the
women expressed themes coded as anger. Three
other subthemes within the Negative Reaction to
Home Culture theme were mentioned by at least
five participants (25%): negative American materialism, negative home culture spirituality and negative home culture (general). The negative home culture spirituality code was assigned to statements that
were critical of American Christians or practices in
American churches.
The third part of the data analysis procedure was
to examine the transcript for intensity by considering
the use of strong words, emotional language, and
nonverbal indicators. Anger was a commonly
expressed emotion. A male participant expressed
intense anger concerning his feelings about his home
culture during reentry, It just made me disgusted to
be an American and be part of the American society
and to come back here and live in it... really its hard
to verbalize all the anger coursing through my brain
right now. A female participant reflected similarly
intense emotions, I also had anger when I first got
back to the States. I was very upset at the hypocrisy
of so many Americans and the shallowness we are
very happy to live in.
Several students expressed difficulty identifying
with their home culture, For the most part, we told
people we were Canadians. We wore Canadian
patches, because everywhere we saw Americans
Americans are totally, totally arrogant. A female


participant, reflected intense dissatisfaction about

American materialism and its reflection on her as an
American traveling overseas, It was just so sickening ... what you're representing, you know, money.
Another participant also upset about her home cultures materialism demonstrated a disconnection
between herself and the practices of the people in
her family:
Not getting caught up in petty, little things, like modern conveniences and all that stuff... It's kind of frustrating just seeing the ways that people would rather do something the easy
way, like putting your clothes in the dryer instead of hanging
them outside. And sometimes I look at my mom and think,
you are really spoiled!

Another student, expressed his negative view of the

American church,
I think I was most upset at the church in America, because
being there I realized what the church is about and what it
should be like, and ... I come back to the US and I didnt see
that same fire, passion, love or connection with people, or
any of that ... The American church has just lost it.

Personal Growth/Learning

The Personal Growth/Learning theme included

responses about the trip as a learning or growthinducing experience. The nine subthemes included
growth in personal, ethnic, and social group identity,
spirituality, and vocational direction. Participants
also reported challenges with existential questions
about personal purpose in their home culture, as
well as a desire to be agents of change within their
home culture.
Personal Growth/Learning was the second most
frequent theme. Of the 156 coded items, 38
(24.36%) were assigned to this theme. General personal growth/learning was coded eight times.
Motivation to enact change in home culture,
sense of purpose in home culture, and question
of place in home culture were mentioned 6, 6, and
5 times respectively.
Personal Growth/Learning was also the second
most extensive theme. Seven of the 20 participants, or
35%, discussed themes coded as general personal
growth/learning making it the second most extensively mentioned code. Six participants, or 30%, mentioned sense of purpose in home culture. Four participants (25%) stated that their trips overseas challenged
them to evaluate the social groups that they belong to
(identity challenge- social group). Three participants (15%) questioned their place in their home culture; 3 talked about a renewed motivation to enact


change at home; and 3 discussed the challenges to personal identity that they experienced as part of the trip.
The participants talked about many different types
of learning and growth. Among the most intense were
the discussions of belonging and purpose. One male
participant articulated the challenge of integrating his
trip with his identity as an American:
Why am I here in America? I dont know all the answers, but
the one thing I know is that there must be some purpose that I
have, some reason that I was born here. I could have been
born in an Asian country or in Africa or some other country. I
know I benefit from this culture and I dont understand why.

One female participant was surprised about the way

her trip influenced her vocational goals and her perception of her place in the world:
I went on a trip wondering if I wanted to work with refugees,
wondering if I wanted to be a missionary . . . but I actually
ended up coming back with a greater passion for the church in
America. ... It made me just want to come back to the church
and be here.

Some participants were challenged to rethink their

American identity, for example, I had to do a lot of
identity searching. Like, who am I? Am I just an
American or am I an American with Asian interests?
Several students who came from multicultural or
biracial backgrounds reported unique difficulties
with the cultural transition process: I was frustrated
with being caught in three cultures and I felt
secluded because they made fun of me because Im
an American. The Americans make fun of me
because I know Spanish.
Interestingly only one student talked directly
about the personal spiritual growth that she experienced as a result of her mission trip. She commented, God helped me find myself. Several other students mentioned about spiritual topics, mostly in
relation to their sense of purpose.
Cultural Awareness/Diversity

Many participants expressed appreciation for the

culture that they visited as well as a deepened understanding of the global community and international
missions. The Cultural Awareness/Diversity theme
included six subthemes: general cultural awareness/diversity, appreciation of specific other culture, elevation of other culture (over the home
culture), hospitality of other culture, negative
short-term missions, and positive missions.
Cultural Awareness/Diversity was third in frequency with 24 total subthemes assigned. General
cultural awareness was coded 10 times, appreciation



of specific other culture was coded 6 times and hospitality of other culture was mentioned 3 times.
As far as extensiveness, general cultural awareness was mentioned by four participants (25%),
appreciation of specific other culture was mentioned
by 3 participants (15%), and 2 (10%) participants
mentioned hospitality of other culture.
Many of the participants were impressed with the
strengths of the countries that they visited. Of particular note are this males comments on the hospitality
of Kenya:

home culture, mentioned three times by 3 different

participants (15%), and realization of home culture influence mentioned five times by 4 participants (25%).
Some students reported positive changes in their
perception of their home culture: It helped me realize that theres great things about us, such as freedom and so on, and I came back and I appreciated
more about America than when I left.

Over there people would invite you in; people would like pull
you in from the streets and make you food. Theyd go into
debt and borrow milk from their neighbor . . . just so they
could make you tea. . . . The people in Kenya are the nicest
people youll ever meet.

When asked how short-term mission trips influenced their view of their home culture, student participants gave a variety of responses. The things that they
experienced on their trips caused them to view their
home culture critically, or with anger or guilt. Yet they
reported that their experiences inspired personal
growth and gave them new perspectives about personal purpose, belonging and calling. Their experiences
increased their appreciation for other cultures and
made them more aware of their countrys place on the
world stage. The students indicated that their trips
involved several adjustments, and they noted the particular difficulty of reentry. Some respondents specified that their mission trip increased their appreciation for their home culture and helped them to see the
benefits of being American.
The results from this student population confirm
previous research findings indicating that anger and
other negative reactions toward the home culture are
a common part of reentry (Sussmann, 2000; Raschio, 1987). Negative Reaction to Home Culture
was the most extensively and most frequently discussed theme, indicating that negative reactions
were among the most salient for participants. The
prevalence of themes reflecting general negativity,
anger, and criticism support Sussmans theory that
cross cultural experiences create an internal conflict
between the cultural values of the home culture and
the values of the culture of service. The
Positive/Neutral Reaction to American Culture
theme was the least extensively coded and only 3
participants discussed the appreciation for home culture subtheme.
Additionally, the findings appear to confirm that
returned participants of short-term mission trips
experience changes in cultural identity. The analysis
indicated that many participants felt negatively about
America and Americans. Since all of the participants
were American citizens or long-term residents, it is

Another male commented, They had an incredible

social atmosphere, they were never in a hurry. Many
students commented on an increased awareness of
cultural differences, Were different, our culture is
different. Its so weird because I knew that it was different than everyone else, but just keeping that in
mind, that were not the only culture and that everyone is not like us.

The Adjustment theme included six subthemes:

general adjustment, general frustration, neutral
reentry, debriefing, positive reentry, and negative
reentry. This theme was fourth in frequency with 22
total coded items. Negative reentry was coded nine
times, and general frustration was coded five times.
The other subthemes were each assigned twice.
The examination of extensiveness showed that 3
participants (15%) mentioned negative reentry, and
3 participants (15%) mentioned general frustration.
Several participants indicated that reentry was an
emotionally intense experience for them: Coming
back was very hard, I didnt want to come back, Its
like going through a really bad depression, and For
the first couple weeks I would just cry every day
because it is so unfair that I have so much and they
have so little. Some students reported that the cultural
transition process was isolating for them, for example,
You come back to America and you feel like its completely cold, like youre not connected to anybody.
Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture

The two subthemes in the Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture theme were appreciation of



reasonable to suggest that the critiques of their home

culture created dissonance between their newly
altered cultural identity and their culture. Student
missionaries were forced to grapple with the realization that they and those they love are part of a culture that they feel negatively about. Many participants included themselves in their criticisms of
American culture. Some used we language, while
others included themselves more directly, such as
Im totally guilty of it, but Im still angry at it. Some
individuals attempted to distance themselves from
their American identity; for example, the participant
who said that she pretended to be Canadian while
overseas and the man who stated, All the [American] tourists going over. It just made me disgusted to
be an American and be part of the American society. Other students disconnected themselves from
common aspects of their home culture, and even
from their family members; for example, the participant that stated, I look at my mom and think, you
are really spoiled.
This study supports the theory that the disconnection between the experience abroad and identification with home culture can create a strong affective
response during reentry (Sussman, 2000, 2001, 2002;
Raschio, 1987). It is clear that many participants felt
disconnected, angry or critical of their home culture.
The high frequency of participants discussing negative experiences of reentry, the intensity of participants descriptions of reentry, and the overt expressions of distress clearly establish the difficulty of
reentry. The fact that the two themes emerged within
the context of a question about individual perspectives of the home culture implies that the two constructs are qualitatively related. Although causation
cannot be proven based on this study, the inference is
that experiencing negative views of ones home culture in the context of a foreign culture are linked to
negative affect during reentry to the home culture.
Considering that college students are in the midst
of an important and often difficult phase of identity
development, the effects of shifting cultural identity
should be carefully attended to. The American College Health Association (2004) found that approximately 15.7% of college students have received a
diagnosis of depression. Given the relative psychological vulnerability of this population, exposing students to the stress of cultural transitions and the
potential for feelings of isolation and anger should
be done with caution and provision of multiple levels of support.


It is import to note that, while participants

expressed negative reactions, this study does not indicate that international short-term mission trips are
negative experiences overall. All of the participants
rated their overall experience as 5 or better on a 7point Likert scale ranging from extremely bad (1) to
extremely good (7). Participants reported personal
growth and learning, as well as increased cultural
awareness and understanding of diversity. Tuttle
(2000) noted that college students identified being
stretched outside their comfort zone/culture shock
as an experience related to spiritual growth. In the
current study, one of the most extensive subthemes
was purpose in home culture, which implies that students were not disillusioned by their new perspective
of their home culture, but felt a renewed sense of purpose. Other students experienced an increased passion or concern for aspects of American culture, such
as Hollywood and the American church. Interestingly
only one student talked directly about spiritual
growth. Given the evangelical nature of their international experiences, it is somewhat surprising that spiritual themes were not more prominent. Perhaps the
critical reactions toward the home culture are not
bad for cultural identity, but are part of a healthy
critical perspective and the formation of a rich, more
internationally aware cultural identity.
Study Critique

In the midst of the unique opportunity for depth

of conceptualization, qualitative research does have
the limit of small sample size. It is important to note
that the breadth of information and results reported
above is based on the experience of 20 student participants. Another weakness of the focus group design
is that individual responses are influenced by others.
Facilitators biases communicated through nonverbal
cues and verbal reactions can influence the direction
of responses. The other group members also influence an individuals response. The first person to
respond sets the tone for the group, and many of the
subsequent responses express agreement or opposition to the remarks of the first respondent.
Another potential weakness of the study design is
the use of multiple, conceptually-related focus group
questions. The question used for this study was the
sixth of seven focus group questions. As mentioned
earlier, the questions were developed to facilitate discussion of mission experience and cross cultural
reentry. Therefore, responses to earlier questions



contained themes related to view of home culture

and cultural identity. Rather than repeating a previous answer, participants may have responded to the
sixth question with a secondary concern or may
have shifted their answer to the question based on
the discussion that took place in response to the
previous questions.
One additional confound was the presence of the
program director during approximately half of one
focus group. Given his position of authority, it is possible that participants tailored their responses to be
socially desirable, perhaps by minimizing their amount
of distress or focusing on issues that they perceive to
be important to the director. The focus groups were
conducted after the selections had been made for the
next summers short-term teams, so none of the participants were under direct evaluation or consideration
for a position at the time of the focus groups.
An important additional limitation is that the
study participants were all college students within a
particular age group (ages 19-25) and developmental
stage. Information on marital status was not requested in order to protect confidentiality, but presumably the vast majority of the participants were not
married. Late adolescent college students may be
uniquely sensitive to cultural identity challenges than
adults at other developmental levels. More research
is needed to better understand how age and development affect cultural identity. Until this is better
understood, the results of this project should not be
generalized to other populations without caution.

However, keeping the limitations in mind, the

following recommendations may assist student mission leaders in facilitating the shifts in cultural identity that accompany cultural transitions.
1. Educate student missionaries about stresses
that may accompany cultural transitions and
prepare students for the possibility of shifts in
cultural identity.
2. Inform students that reentry is part of the cross
cultural experience and let them know that
experiences of social isolation and negative
feelings about their home culture may be a normal part of their experience when they return.
3. Strive to help students achieve an integrated
cultural identity, one that encompasses negative and positive components of both the home
and visited cultures.

4. Provide support during reentry to ease possible

feelings of isolation and allow students to discuss their experiences.
5. Frame the short-term missions experience within a larger context that continues to explore
students experiences of purpose, belonging
and calling and gives students opportunities to
utilize the personal growth and knowledge
acquired on the trip.
Suggestions for Future Research

Further research is needed to explore how cultural identity directly influences the reentry process.
Additional questions and opportunities for clarification can contribute to a deeper understanding of the
individual experience of cultural identity during
reentry. For example, using a focus group design,
good follow up questions could be How does your
negative view of America and Americans affect your
view of yourself? and How do feel about your own
American identity and American citizenship? It is
also important to assess individuals of different ages,
cultures, and marital status. In addition, the finding
that some people experienced positive changes in
cultural identity suggests the need to understand
why their outcomes were different. It is also important to learn whether negative reactions during reentry are associated with negative outcomes such as
depression, or anxiety.
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WALLING, SHERRY M. Address: Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena,
CA 91182. Degree: MA.
ERIKSSON, CYNTHIA. Address: Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena,
CA 91182. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degree: Ph.D.
MEESE, KATHERINE J. Address: Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena,
CA 91182. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degree:
CIOVICA, ANTONIA. Address: Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena,
CA 91182. Degree: M. A.
GORTON, DEBORAH. Address: Graduate School of Psychology,
Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena,
CA 91182. Degree: M. A.
FOY, DAVID W. Address: Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Pepperdine University: Encino Graduate Campus, 16830
Ventura Blvd., Suite 200, Encino, CA 91436. Title: Professor of
Psychology. Degree: Ph.D.



Focus Group Questions
The focus group interview included the following questions:
1. How did working with the people you served influence your experience (children, adults, mixed children and adults)?
2. What changes have you experienced since returning from your trip(s) (i.e., emotional, psychological, interpersonal, etc.)?
3. Describe your most rewarding experience on your mission trip(s).
4. Describe your most distressing experience on your mission trip(s).
5. How did your most distressing experience on your trip(s) influence your spirituality?
6. How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?
7. How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of other cultures?