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
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:
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:
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.