Studying abroad will certainly be a defining period in your student’s educational experience. It will be a personal journey that will likely transform your student into a more worldly person with new ideas and perspectives about the world and its people. Studying abroad is also an experience that will distinguish your student from peers and enable him or her to stand out in the eyes of prospective employers or post-graduate interviewers.
Just the same, we understand that there will be conflicting feelings about the upcoming experience. You and your student are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead but at the same time, there is some trepidation about being several thousand miles apart.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do before, during, and after the study abroad period to support and maximize the learning experience of your student. Your support is very important and how you handle the time away will go a long way toward encouraging your student to thrive and learn from the overseas experience.
Encourage your student to be in charge of pre-departure preparations
Students will have to do many of the tasks involved in preparing to study abroad while attending to their regular semester activities. This is a delicate balance: ensuring your student is prepared for the time abroad while letting them take the lead at the beginning of this new experience. As tempting as it may be to relieve your student of some of the responsibilities, he or she will be in a better position to cope with next semester’s challenges if the student attends to pre-departure preparations personally. Next semester, the reliable support network of family and friends will not be as readily available and students must be prepared to fend for themselves. If the student has had very few opportunities to handle challenges at home, imagine how daunting it could be to have to do so in another culture. So stand back and allow your student handle this responsibility. There is no better time to start flexing those muscles to stand on one’s feet than now!
Stay in touch, but maintain a level of distance
One way to reduce the feeling of homesickness next semester is for you and your student to stay in touch regularly. There is a close correlation between morale abroad and messages from home. Stay informed about current events in the country and region where the student is studying. Many friends and family find reading about the overseas location to be both interesting and a good way to feel more in touch with the experiences of their student.
However, while you will be very eager to know everything about your student’s novel experiences, it is usually not a good idea to encourage your student to call or e-mail home multiple times a day. If the student is always on the phone or the internet communicating with family and friends, the incentive to integrate with the community abroad is much decreased. Instead of exploring the host country, learning the traditions and norms of the host culture, and making friends with the locals, the student is spending precious time e-mailing or calling people back home. If the student is participating in a language program, he or she would more readily improve second language proficiency by immersion in that language rather than communicating extensively in English by e-mail or phone.
You can support your student’s efforts to become more immersed in the host culture by reassuring him or her that you do not expect frequent long e-mail messages, a daily phone call, or text messages several times a day. By doing this, you are giving your student permission to spread his or her wings and fly — and in all likelihood, they will!
There is also a phenomenon that’s referred to as “destructive dialing.” This is a situation in which a student gets upset about something and calls home; the parent gets upset and calls back later, making the student more upset—and so on until the situation reaches a crisis point. You’ll want to avoid that, and regular, limited calling can help do so. Make it clear to your overseas scholar that you expect him or her to be resilient and resourceful enough to overcome minor road bumps along the way—and to reach out to appropriate local resources and advisors.
Time your visits to minimize disruption
If you are planning to visit your student, try not to do so when the term is just getting started. At this early stage, the student is still getting accustomed to the norms of the culture, to the academic system, to the city and how to get around. Instead, give him or her time to adjust to the new environment, acquire mastery of the local language, and develop new expertise, skills, and knowledge to show off when you do come.
We discourage parents from accompanying the student to the program’s location to help with move-in. This can be disruptive to the program staff and other participants and may prevent your student from getting off to a good start.
If you hold off your visit until later in the semester, your student would have dealt with culture shock and has already made the transition to life in his or her host city. The student will also really relish showing you around and you get the benefit of having a knowledgeable guide to introduce you to the city and country. For once, you don’t have to lift a finger! You can just sit back and let your traveler to do all the work planning the itinerary! You will be proudly introduced to his or her new friends, taken to the group’s favorite local hangout, or given an informative walking tour of the city. It will be a very positive experience for you and your student.
If you do visit, try not to undermine the student’s academic commitment by pulling them from class for vacation jaunts. Instead, get a copy of the student’s semester schedule and schedule your trip during program vacations.
Culture shock can & will happen — but it passes
It is true, studying abroad won’t always be easy, and your student will encounter some challenging situations while overseas. He or she might have to adjust to a new academic system, find university procedures bewildering, dislike the more modest accommodations, or have trouble communicating in the local language. The onsite university staff is there to assist students and issues are usually resolved after direct intervention, usually after a student has had time to settle down in the new environment.
Remember that complaints usually occur during the student’s first few weeks overseas. Many of the situations that cause students to feel anxious are simply new situations to which they will eventually adapt. Thus, resist the temptation to solve the problem yourself, intercede with host university or program staff on behalf of the student, or, even fly the student home.
Though you might feel anxious or alarmed to hear your student complaining, there is really little that you or the Office of Study Abroad staff can do from here. Instead, provide a sympathetic ear but encourage your student to reach out to local advisors, show some patience, learn to go with the flow, have a sense of humor, engage the people in the host culture, find reasons for perceived cultural differences, and not to despair if assistance is not immediately forthcoming.
Urge the student to work on being more independent, figure out possible solutions to problematic situations, request assistance from program or university staff if the task seems too daunting, seek out local students who know the ropes and could provide invaluable suggestions, or discuss the problem with the host family to get tips on how to handle the problem. Express confidence at the student’s ability to handle the problem himself or herself. More than likely, the student will come through —in a blaze of colors!
However, if you feel your student is facing an unsafe or dangerous situation, please contact the Office of Study Abroad. We will follow up with the host institution on your behalf. We are more than happy to talk through some of the concerns you are having, and you can feel free to reach us at the emergency number 24/7. More than anything, we want our students to have a solid experience abroad.
Prepare for the transformation
Your student will return home changed by the experience. He or she may dress a bit differently, like new foods, speak differently, express new political perspectives, or even speak somewhat disparagingly of the United States. Believe it or not, this is normal. Your daily routine probably changed very little during the time the student was abroad. On the other hand, your student’s life was anything but routine! He or she was exposed to a plethora of new ideas, practices, and philosophies. So do expect some changes and be patient. It will take time before this person sorts through his or her experiences to determine which traits and personal lessons learned abroad are worth keeping.
Be prepared also for some reverse culture shock. After the excitement of being back and sharing their adventures with friends and family, many students find themselves moping and feeling sad because they miss their new friends, the novel experiences that happened almost daily, the exciting activities, or their favorite food. Your student might express boredom, assert that his or her life has become quite ordinary, and suggest that he or she spend time abroad again.
Here again, your support, interest, and understanding will be crucial. Discussing these feelings and changes in your student’s outlook is an excellent way of sharing his or her international experience. Encourage him or her to stay in touch with overseas friends but to find local avenues in which the knowledge and skills gained from their time abroad could be useful. In time, your student will fully readjust to being back though most likely changed by his or her time overseas.