When Alyssa Ruble returned to the United States, she was hit with reverse culture shock.

“Things that once were so familiar,” she said, “looked like they used to, but I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore.”

She spent two years in Tanzania’s semi-autonomous province of Zanzibar, an island chain off Africa’s eastern coast.

She didn’t stay in her native Indiana long after returning from abroad and is now a first-year teacher at Greenwood Christian School.

Ruble grew up in the small town of Mulberry, Indiana.

“I don’t think there was a single stoplight,” Ruble said. “Just corn for miles. We didn’t even have our own school district. I am a small-town girl for sure.”

Her family moved to Indianapolis when she was 14, which was a hard transition from small-town life. Nobody knew her and her classes were much larger than those in Mulberry.

But she got used to the city and attended Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, where she majored in secondary English education.

She knew what she wanted to do next.

“God laid it on my heart that I needed to be more mission-oriented,” she said. “(He) planted a burden in me for the lost people who don’t know Jesus.”

Just before graduation, Ruble crossed paths with people who worked for Aslan Centers for Education, which ran an English-language school in Zanzibar.

She left for Zanzibar in October 2017. The archipelago has two main islands, Pemba and Unguja. The latter is more developed and it was her home for her first six months in Africa, which she spent learning Swahili.

Aslan’s school was in the town of Chake Chake on Pemba, known locally as the “more stubborn but more beautiful sister” of Unguja, Ruble said. It draws few tourists and English is almost nonexistent.

“Everyone kind of jokes and says Pembans go to bed at 6 p.m.,” she said. She insists it isn’t true.

Life in Pemba was challenging.

“I’ve never seen humidity hit 100%,” Ruble said. “I thought that meant it was raining.”

Nutrient-dense foods were scarce. The local diet was heavy on bread and beans, light on most other things. For one three-month stretch, she had no running water.

And yet, she loved Pemba. The culture and priorities, which were different from those she grew up with, changed her.

“There’s something really cool that happens when you ... push past the surface-y things that you’re used to in the States,” she said. “You really appreciate the depth of what life has to offer.”

Ruble flew back to the U.S. in 2018 for her brother’s wedding and met Candace Cowsert through a mutual friend.

Cowsert spent more than two years living in Cairo. She and Ruble bonded over stories of their time abroad: adventures, language blunders and revelations.

“When you live in another culture, especially for a significant chunk of time, you start to see things differently,” Cowsert said. “Almost like you’ve put on a different pair of glasses.”

“The way I grew up, my life was so closed,” Ruble said. “It’s a humbling thing to be the odd man out. To be the only person in the room who doesn’t look like anyone else. ... I was just shown so much grace when I was there.”

Some of her students were teenagers, some in their 50s, but most were in their 20s and 30s. The classes were run out of an apartment in Chake Chake. The living room was a common area where they had graduation ceremonies and the occasional ice cream social, and the bedrooms served as classrooms.

Harsh treatment in traditional schools conditioned many of Ruble’s students to fear classrooms. Grown women would ask her permission to use the bathroom.

One time, a woman approached her with tears in her eyes.

“I love coming to school here,” Ruble recalled her saying. “You’re so kind to us.”

She didn’t mean to move back when she did.

Ruble flew to the United States earlier this year for what was to be a short visit and packed only a duffle bag. But she had become very sick on Pemba, and when she went to see doctors, they told her she couldn’t go back; Ruble had contracted parasites and struggled to keep food down.

Returning home was difficult.

“A lot of people expect you to be the same as before you’ve left,” Cowsert said. “It’s really hard because people don’t understand why you might see something differently or why you might have some different opinions.”

Ruble prayed for guidance on her next move. Through a family member living in Greenwood, she heard about an opening at Greenwood Christian School. Moving to South Carolina wasn’t a difficult decision.

“At that point, I had been so used to starting over,” she said, adding that she had found her dream job.

She acknowledged that some see middle schoolers as difficult, but said they’re her favorite group to teach.

“The world hasn’t got to them yet where they’re ashamed of who they are or who they’re becoming,” she said.

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.