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U.S. students who participate in justice-oriented study abroad programs face great challenges reintegrating to life in the United States. In addition to working through culture shock, these students ultimately confront the dilemma of putting into practice a newfound transformed worldview that runs counter to hegemonic norms. Faced with the challenge of negotiating this dissonance, students can choose to blend in and conform to the status quo while struggling internally with their un-actualized perspective transformation – like a chameleon with a complex – or they can find ways to resist assimilation by acting on their transformation and taking action in the world.

This study utilizes a case study approach to understand the efforts of one returned study abroad alumni network – the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE) – to work with students who return from justice-oriented study abroad programs, and assesses if these efforts are an effective strategy for helping students overcome or resist the malaise of the chameleon complex. This paper concludes with a series of recommendations for how ENGAGE might improve its efforts to work with this particular subset of students.

The tool for assessing ENGAGE was developed by reviewing the theory of transformational learning, existing research on the transformational learning process of study abroad students, and key programmatic components unique to justice-oriented study abroad programs that contribute to student transformation. The assessment framework is used as a lens to ‘read’ ENGAGE as a ‘text’ to determine whether or not its efforts to support returned study abroad students aligns with what theory says is best practice for nurturing ongoing perspective transformation and social change.

This study concludes that ENGAGE has an emergent approach to education (albeit in need of being formalized and better articulated) that does provide an outlet for students to act on their newfound perspective transformation, as well as better negotiate the dissonance caused by conflicting and competing worldviews, the byproduct of the justice-oriented study abroad experience. Factors that contribute to this assessment include ENGAGE’s commitment to experiential learning; its efforts to build and maintain solidarity with grassroots peoples’ movements in the U.S. and abroad; its campaigns and projects in which returned study abroad students can participate; its commitment to social justice; and its self-articulation as an educational movement that is not issue or topic oriented.

The results of this project will be used by ENGAGE to formalize and refine existing programs and to help conceptualize new programmatic offerings that might better meet the needs of returned study abroad students. This study also contributes to a larger discourse within the field of study abroad by offering insights into how the unique needs of a small subset of study abroad students can be better served.