Studying abroad will almost certainly be a defining period in your son or daughter’s educational experience — a psychological journey that will transform him or her into a global thinker with international perspectives and put him or her a step ahead of the competition in the eyes of prospective employers. In spite of this, you — and your son or daughter — may have a wide range of feelings about the upcoming experience, from excitement at its potential to stress at the idea of being far apart.
By understanding each other’s feelings and supporting decisions before, during, and after the period of overseas study, you can help maximize this opportunity. Here is some advice on what to expect (we’ve been seeing study abroad transformations in action for more than 50 years).
Encourage, but don’t push
Before your student leaves, offer your full support. Let him or her know that you will be there throughout the experience if needed, including that you can still be reached from overseas.
Time abroad often begins with a honeymoon period during which students are excited to finally be in the setting that they have dreamed of. After facing realities such as unfamiliar university procedures, unexpected difficulty with the local language, commuting woes, and the absence of usual support groups, culture shock can set in. At the same time, the student is away from on-campus medical, psychological and advisory services they may have come to rely on (a major change in university life since we attended college is the degree to which students rely on these resources). Expect to hear some tales of frustration, though your student will likely be experiencing many wonderful things as well, even if you are not the first to hear about them. In most cases he or she won’t expect you to solve problems —as much as you may want to—and is just looking for an understanding ear.
If studying abroad was your idea to begin with, be sure not to push too hard. Every year, program directors hear complaints from students who didn’t want to come in the first place—and those students experience more difficulty than others adjusting to the new environment. In fact, some never do.
Maintain a level of Distance
It is by overcoming any difficulties that your son or daughter will quickly rise to a new level of independence, so avoid the temptation to become too involved. Ultimately, this is his or her learning experience.
Also, it’s important to remember that study abroad students are not on vacation. Attending class with him or her—or taking your student out of class to sightsee—will interrupt the educational process and immersion experience. If you want to visit, it’s best to do so when the program has finished so you can travel together. And it’s not usually wise to try to obtain permission for your student to return home early; the end of the semester is the most important part of his or her academic experience.
Prepare for the Transformation
After living abroad for as long as study abroad students do, they can’t help but be changed by the experience. This can take many forms, from new ways of dressing to cravings for different kinds of food to new political perspectives. Don’t worry too much: negative feelings usually last for a very short time, while a realistic view of America and its place in the world remains with most students for life.
Be prepared for him or her to experience some degree of reverse culture shock—most do—and need some time to fully readjust to living at home again. In some cases, he or she may even experience a period of depression or longing to return abroad. Once again, your support, interest, and understanding will help your son or daughter during this life-altering experience. Observing and discussing changes like these is an excellent way to share in your son or daughter’s international experience, and you will probably want to hear more than most other people, which will be satisfying to your son or daughter. Most study abroad participants report years later that the time they spent overseas was the best part of their college years—and that it changed them for life.
It’s a delicate balance: making sure your son or daughter is prepared for his or her time abroad, and letting him or her take the lead at the beginning of this new experience. Here is a list of things that should be resolved before departure, and our suggestions for ways to do so:
Make sure your student understands what policies apply to him or her while abroad. Ask home schools about credit, enrollment status, financial aid, study abroad-related fees and services the school will provide while abroad. Ask program providers for the terms of participation, which covers issues such as course load, changes to academic programs, grade reporting, fees, and refunds.
Check that your son or daughter’s passport and any required visas are in order. You should also have a valid passport in case of emergency.
Before departure, your son or daughter should have a general physical and dental exam; women should also have a gynecological checkup. Make sure he or she packs a complete medical record and a typed copy of any vision prescriptions needed. Ask the doctor how best to handle routine prescription medications.
Decide with your son or daughter how to access money for both everyday financial needs and emergencies. Certain monetary instruments may be preferable in certain destinations, so ask your program provider for more specific recommendations. Generally, it’s important to ask your bank how (or if) its ATM card will function abroad and what extra fees there might be. A personal credit card with cash advances or traveler’s checks could also make sense. Then, make arrangements to pay any monthly bills and, if necessary, to file your son or daughter’s income taxes.
Continue carrying your student as a dependent on your health insurance policy, even if he or she will have other coverage while studying abroad. Be aware that in many countries the cost of medical services must be paid in advance by the patient (and then reimbursed by insurance). Insure valuables your son or daughter will take on the trip, such as a laptop computer, camera, or video recorder. Also consider tuition, trip, travel, and luggage insurance. Advise him or her not to bring irreplaceable objects such as family jewelry.
Research travel costs and help book flights. Learn regulations regarding the type and size of luggage that can be carried; then help your son or daughter pack lightly. Be aware of any restrictions the tickets you purchase may have (such as a change policy). A money belt can help keep valuables safe during the trip.
Make sure you have a telephone number where you can reach your student and know the times of day when he or she is most likely to be there. Minimize the cost of staying in touch by establishing methods in advance. Contact your phone service provider to arrange for a calling card, research internet phone options, or learn the most inexpensive way to call collect or wirelessly from the destination country. You maybe able to select an international plan that has reduced calling rates to that particular country to minimize costs of calling from home. Given the cost of telephoning, it might be better to set up a regular schedule for e-mailing or instant messaging instead.
Make sure you will be informed if your student runs into difficulty overseas. Since students are almost always adults (over 18 years of age), you will not receive that information unless you are designated as his or her emergency contact. In some cases, even that is not sufficient, so you may want to have him or her sign a release form as a precaution. Discuss how you will handle any family emergencies that may arise. It’s best to have a written emergency communication plan listing the methods of communication to use and the order in which to use them. Give your student a copy of the plan, which should include: all family telephone numbers; access codes for messages on family answering machines; phone numbers for several out-of-state relatives; and several e-mail addresses, including a backup address at an overseas provider such as Yahoo! Australia.
Gather all of the information you and your student might need while he or she is away, including:
If you want to help your student prepare, make plans to take care of the following necessities together:
Keep up-to-date stateside
You may have to help handle some things for your son or daughter while he or she is abroad, such as:
Knowledge is a series of informational brochures for students, parents, and advisors brought to you by CIEE. As the leading U.S. non-governmental international education organization, CIEE develops and provides programs that allow students and educators to study and teach abroad. We believe that there is no better way to increase international understanding and establish trust between nations. Whether you choose one of our 80 programs or another provider’s, we’re thrilled that you’re embarking on this transforming, enduring experience.
Additional copies and displays are available upon request at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Parents.” study abroad with CIEE | CIEE – Council on International Educational Exchange. CIEE, 2009. Web.