Conversations with parents about study abroad

By Evanne Montoya

Leaving for college is a big step; leaving the country to study is an even bigger one. If your student is considering a study abroad experience, you may find yourself both thrilled and anxious. 

“What will it be like? Is my student ready for the challenge? Do I have a role to play?”

Donna took time out to speak with me about her daughter Alex’s junior year in London, and two other parents who have recently “been there, done that” share their thoughts about what can make study abroad so transformative.

My conversation with Donna

Q: Did you encourage Alex to study abroad?

A: I think it was more of an expectation of our family. We raised our kids to take advantage of all opportunities presented to them.

Q: How did you feel when she said she wanted to study in London?

A: I was very excited for her, because I had lived overseas, and my husband had been overseas in the Navy. I remember living abroad in my 20s being one of the wonderful experiences of my life.

Q: Did you have any concerns about her going?

A: No, because she went out of state for college, and seemed to handle that well. Also, after taking a gap year I felt she was a very mature person, mature enough to handle the situation.

Q: What did you do to help her prepare?

A: Her whole life! I think all of the experiences that she had prior to London prepared her. Even though she was a homebody, she always pushed the envelope.

Q: How did the details work out?

A: The visa process was only complicated because she was in a different state. It was a little anxiety-provoking, but it all got done in the end.

The school in London did a good job making sure the papers moved quickly. There was a lot of correspondence between her and the program, and she didn’t seem to have any problems at all.

Q: Did Alex experience homesickness? How did you support her through that?

A: Yes, she did. I don’t think it was that different from college, because she went away for college, too. We supported her by telling her it would get better, and encouraging her to do things that were offered on the London campus, to get into groups, and go on trips.

She took our advice and traveled to several different countries during her time overseas. She also ended up being very thankful that we encouraged her to take two semesters abroad instead of one, because she truly loved it.

Q: What would you suggest to parents who are nervous about their students studying abroad?

A: Talk to other parents who have had students go abroad. Find out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s a lot that’s really good, but that first week can be hard.

The expectation that your child will have a magical experience from the first day is a false one. You need to tell your student it may be rough at the beginning, especially if it’s a country where English isn’t the native language, but it will get better. 

And you need to stay calm when they call and they’re crying because they’re homesick.

I would find out about medical care, because that’s a concern I had — what if my child gets hurt, what will I do?

Also, find out how to transfer funds; that’s a big one because conversion rates change. You want to make sure that they’re doing okay financially. In that way it’s like building a house or doing a renovation; you should have a little extra because things come up.

Q: What benefits did you see?

A: There’s a big world out there, and Alex understands that more now. Not everyone is like the people she’s lived with and grown up with, and people have different cultures that are just as valuable as the ones we share in the U.S. She got over her fear of being alone, and traveling. She knows now that she can make friends anywhere.

There wasn’t a downside for her. International study was a wonderful experience. Hopefully she’ll pay it forward and if she has kids she’ll encourage them to live outside of what they know.

Students who study abroad grow in…

Organizational skills and self-advocacy.

“Bess spent a good deal of sophomore year preparing to study abroad in the fall of junior year. She researched a lot of programs, and finally decided on one that matched her interests yet was not approved by her college. She had to petition to get the program approved, and this involved obtaining and completing endless forms on a short deadline. But the program was eventually accepted, which made Bess feel accomplished. It also gave her conviction about what she wished to study: comparative education and social change in Chilean schools.” — Lauren

Independence and self-confidence.

“I remember when we visited Katy in Barcelona over Thanksgiving it was like I was meeting a whole new version of my child: confident, independent, marching us through back alley shortcuts to her favorite tapas place, shops, street vendors. I couldn’t really believe what a transformation had taken place in just three short months but there it was. She felt like she had conquered Barcelona and could make her way around anywhere in the city. She went back the following year to visit her host family again. Study abroad was a 10+ experience for her.” — Kathleen

Encourage your student to consider staying with a family.

“The most vital thing for Katy was that she was with a family: two parents and three older kids who all lived at home, a family who ate dinner together every night and just loved hanging out together. Obviously she hit the jackpot accidentally, but my point is that the scenario where students live in dorms with other Americans is less of an experience. I’ve also heard of scenarios where the host ‘family’ is a single older person getting paid to provide 12 meals a week. It’s worth doing careful research about the families.”