Reflections on the first holiday without your student

My daughter studied abroad last fall semester. I was almost as excited as she was about her chance to live in France for five months, thrilled to buy her guidebooks and a new suitcase for her travels. I imagined her eating croissants, relishing unforgettable sights and opportunities, and returning with a whole new level of knowledge and experience.

I was so delighted for her adventure to begin, I almost pushed her through security at the airport. Only after she was gone did it hit me that, for the first time in her life, she wouldn’t be with us for Thanksgiving. I’d known that having her so far away would be an adjustment but I hadn’t thought through the many moments she would be absent. Suddenly I pictured an empty chair at the holiday table and realized our entire family was altered.

Just when you’ve settled into new family rhythms and routines with your student off at school, if she can’t get home for important family holidays, you may experience a renewed sense of disruption. Many students aren’t able to return home, particularly for Thanksgiving, with its short break. For some families, it’s a financial choice — they must prioritize when to purchase the one, budgeted plane ticket. International students and those studying abroad often miss the winter holidays, and many school calendars make Easter or Passover at home an impossibility for students.

“We were saving our money for a plane ticket home for winter break, so freshman year our son spent Thanksgiving at his grandparents’ house in New Hampshire. He said at first he felt a little funny visiting Grammy and Papa by himself, but then the aunts, uncles and cousins arrived and he ended up having a wonderful time.” — Parent of a college sophomore

Changes in family traditions inspire a range of feelings in parents — sadness, a sense of loss, even guilt. The impact on your student, though, may be different. Betsy Cracco, Ph.D., is the Director of Counseling and Mental Health Services at the University of Connecticut, with over 17,000 students on the main campus. She encourages parents to “listen empathically” to their students. While some students will be disappointed to miss the family holiday, others may not want to come home for a variety of reasons. As Dr. Cracco points out, “this is a challenge and a growth opportunity for your student.”

According to Dr. Cracco, once you have listened to and acknowledged your student’s feelings, you should think about how to help your student have the best experience possible on her own. Encouraging your student to go to a friend’s house and join their holiday is one option. Many schools keep campus housing open over Thanksgiving break, but food service may shut down or be limited and campus may feel deserted. Participating in another family’s traditions can be eye opening and invigorating for the host family as well as the visiting student.

Making plans to be in contact may also help. Skype, Facetime or another form of video call can connect the whole family and allow your student to see the usual gathering of relatives and friends and have a chance to say hello to everyone.

Whatever we may be feeling, supporting our students often means thinking carefully about what we say to them. While we want them to know they are missed, it is equally important to let them know we value their increasing independence and ability to face new situations in a positive way.

My daughter created a little bit of Thanksgiving for herself in France as a way of connecting with home. She had asked me to mail her chocolate chips and recipes so she could make the cookies and other desserts she’d traditionally baked at Thanksgiving with her sister and cousins. We Skyped that day so everyone could give her their love, and emailed some pictures and a report of our activities.

For my daughter, handling that first holiday away from home was a turning point. She gained a deeper sense of independence, and confidence that she could face other challenges that might come her way. Chocolate chips aside, that may be the best holiday present a student can ask for.