Recommendations from a Study Abroad Parent
by Kathleen Sideli
Associate Vice President for Overseas Study
Since I’ve been on the staff of the Office of Overseas Study for more than 25 years, I have often urged parents to encourage their sons or daughters to study abroad and have reassured them once their children were abroad. Over the years, this office has increased its outreach so that parents can more easily access the same materials that we make available to students. What changed recently for me is that I suddenly found myself on the other side of the fence. That is, I became a study abroad parent when my daughter, Laura, chose to study abroad. What did I learn from the experience?
It is never too early to begin. As parents we have to juggle the fine line between nagging and being supportive to our children during this process. It is important to have them interact with the appropriate offices, but it helps them to have parents engaged in the process from a distance.
Since the program your son or daughter chooses is one that should fit into his or her curricular requirements, you might request information from him or her about how the study abroad experience best achieves their graduation goals before you grant your permission. While most students select programs for the right reasons, some are heavily influenced by what their peers are doing. Students should select the program that best fits within their degree requirements, for academic as well as economic reasons.
Once your son or daughter has been accepted to study abroad, try to stay informed about the materials they receive. These include pre-departure information regarding visas, travel plans, health and security issues, payment deadlines, housing. Most questions you can conjure up have already been answered by a program provider. The key is getting access to that information. Some programs send that information in printed form while others send the information electronically or post it online. Check with your son or daughter before contacting the program organizers.
Work out an acceptable system regarding how to stay in touch. While some families have gotten used to daily calls with their children stateside, frequent calls to and from abroad may result in high phone bills and make difficulties for adjustment abroad. And the time difference makes it exceedingly difficult to schedule conversations. E-mail may be a preferable form of communication, but you may receive spontaneous messages that vent frustration as your student confronts a new culture. Remember that they are abroad precisely to learn how to maneuver through another system so don’t panic when they panic. And don’t try to supply all the answers to their myriad questions. There are professionals on-site who are experienced in assisting American students to navigate their way through their study abroad experience. Encourage them to tap that expertise.
Visiting your son or daughter abroad can result in a memorable bonding experience. However, it is important to ensure that they don’t skip classes to be tour guides for parents. Even I had to respect this critical factor when I visited my daughter since I didn’t want to undermine her academic commitments. Find out the vacation schedule before locking in flights and hotels.
The student who returns home is not the student you sent abroad. This transition can be a positive experience, but it can have its moments of drama. Read up on culture shock so that you understand the adjustments they need to go through when they return. And be sure to be proud of their exceptional accomplishments. Adapting to another culture, making new friends, studying in a new system and returning to their previous lives are powerful achievements. And congratulate yourselves that you trusted them enough to let them have this unique and life-changing experience!
This article first appeared in the spring 2005 issue of the Campus Life newsletter, published through the efforts of the IU Alumni Association, the IU Foundation and the Division of Student Affairs.