Dr. Linda Seward
Speech and Theatre Department
Middle Tennessee State University 37132

Study Abroad


Note to Parents


            Supporting your child's desire to study abroad is one of the best decisions you could make.  In addition to making them more competitive in a global economy, participation in study abroad programs can result in life-changing experiences that broaden a student's horizons and increase self-confidence. 

Study abroad programs have orientations and information for both students and parents.  I would like to take this opportunity, however, to address some issues from the perspective of a professor who goes abroad with the students.  Feel free to contact me at any time if I can answer questions for you.  (E-mail: Linda.Seward@mtsu.edu)

Saying Good-bye

            Universities are diligent in their efforts to develop study abroad programs that are well organized, educational and safe.  Program directors have not only taught abroad, they have taught in the specific country (or countries) that their program covers.  Each director remains alert to the latest updates on security issues and relevant concerns that may affect participants in the program.  When we are overseas, students are told to notify the director of any travel plans during their free time and we all keep an eye on how well students are adjusting to life overseas.  Living arrangements are such that the program director and faculty are readily available to students who need encouragement or a friendly ear.

            Even so, it can be difficult for you to wave goodbye to your "little baby" as the group gathers to travel to another country.  You may find yourself saying, "call me when you get there."  While I definitely understand the sentiment, I'd urge you to reword what you actually say.  Why?  Let me provide this example:

            Students have arrived at their European destination.  They're tired from sitting in squished seats for a long flight; they want to sleep but it's only three in the afternoon and we've told them to wait for a few hours in order to get them adjusted to their new time zone.  A group decides to look for phones to call home.  After a bit of searching (public phones are disappearing as much of the world switches to the use of cell phones), we find phones and calls are attempted - and fail.  An exhausted student exclaims, "I promised my mother I would call when I got here" - and bursts into tears!

            This true story eventually had a happy ending when we found phone cards that worked, but it illustrates a common reality of being overseas: technology doesn't always work as effectively as it does in the U.S.

 What can go wrong?  I've encountered a variety of problems that range from overloaded international phone lines (that result in busy signals) to phone lines that were inoperable for a week due to monsoon rains.  In addition to possible technical difficulties, time zones may mean that students need to call at odd hours in order to reach you when you're not sleeping (and they may goof the first time they call!).

The good news is that phone calls and e-mails do eventually get through.  So my request is this: rather than asking your child to "call as soon as you arrive," ask that they call "when it's possible."  You can assure them that you definitely want to hear from them but that you understand that it may take them a few days to get acclimated and figure the systems out.  That flexibility can go a long way in reducing their stress.

When you do hear from them, it's important to understand that it is normal for students (and faculty!) to experience a range of emotions while they are abroad.  The patterns have been so well documented that they have names: Culture Shock and Return Culture Shock.

Culture Shock: At first everyone is filled with excitement.  Such an adventure!  They may not be able to sleep on the flight over because they can't wait to see this new land.  Initial phone calls and emails may be filled with descriptions of the exhausting process of getting from one country to the next: long lines, going through security and customs, problems with busses or room assignments.  Remember that the first phone call is often made when your child is sleep deprived! 

Later they will tell you about wondrous sights and experiences; they’ll be excited as they try to share all that is happening in their lives.  A few weeks into the program you may receive calls where they sound homesick and are quite low.  They may call and not seem to have anything in particular to say.  It's important for you to understand that this reaction is normal; they are experiencing a well-known process called Culture Shock.  When this happens, it is your voice that matters to them the most.  If they could reach through the phone lines for a hug, they would!  Reassure them with information about the family and life at home - and realize that a temporary depression is a common process of leaving home and going to another culture.  (Note: Students who participate in really short programs that are only 2-3 weeks long, will likely not experience Culture Shock.)

The length and depth of the down times depends on a variety of factors that include: degree of difference between the host and home culture, familiarity with the language, length of stay, housing conditions, type of food and previous travel experiences (if any).  Any time your loved one calls, know that the most important thing they want from you is to hear your voice.  Listening to their frustrations and joys, offering encouragement, but most of all, letting them know that you care is so very important to them.  

One of the things that you can do is to understand the processes involved.  If you click below, you can read the explanations I prepared for students which include sections for parents.