Dear Mom and Dad, I’m Studying Abroad

by Kelly Holland

In the average university study abroad office there are stacks of glossy brochures lining the walls with students smiling at you from exotic locations. Over the years the brochures have changed shape and size, color and font, but the message remains the same: Study Abroad! Chance of a Lifetime! Anywhere but Here! Some students grab a brochure and share it with family at the dinner table, others take one look and say, “My mom would never go for that.”

Many students come to university as first generation college students, so university study abroad advisors often talk to many nervous moms and dads who have reservations about their children studying abroad, since for them going to college seems to already be a large obstacle. While the idea may take some getting used to for your parents, you don't have to keep it off the table entirely. Instead, consider these six tips for talking to your family about studying abroad.

1. Do your research. You wouldn’t go to a job interview and wing it, would you? Approach this important conversation the same way. Attend a study abroad information session at your university or make an appointment with an advisor to learn the basics of what it means to study abroad at your school.  At a bare minimum, this will show your parents that you’ve thought about this a bit further than the sexy travel poster in the hallway outside your Psych class. The more information you can bring to the table, the better.

2. Consider multiple options. Many universities and providers now have multiple options for you to choose from when it comes to studying abroad. You can take advantage of short-term (three week, three credit) programs, a combination of study and internship or service learning, or even study abroad for a full academic year. Rather than posing your first choice as the only option, share with your folks that there are multiple ways to go abroad. Remember this also includes timing – not all students study abroad in their junior year. Review the policies at your school to determine when you can go and when your application deadlines are.

3. Be proactive. One of the most common concerns for students and their families when it comes to study abroad is finances. To help combat sticker shock, it’s a good idea to draw up a budget and start a scholarship search. Does your study abroad office offer scholarships? Find out what’s required and start an application. Many offices also advise on national scholarships, such as the Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship, the Boren Awards, and more. Your academic department, your local Rotary chapter, or a community organization may also be able to assist with funding. All you have to do is ask.

4. Put yourself in their shoes. You probably have your own anxieties about studying abroad, even if you don’t want to say them out loud. Your parents will have them, too. Is it safe where you’re going? Will you be insured? Can you take your phone? Are there other students there? Who will be teaching you? Where will you be living? It’s going to be a long list, and that’s to be expected. If you don’t know the answer, write the question down. The majority of programs will share a vast amount of information on their websites, so you may want to make time to sit down and review the material with your folks.

5. Ask the study abroad office for help. Your study abroad office probably works with parents more than you think. Don’t feel like the annoying kid whose Mom has a hundred questions, because you’re not the only one! Some universities have a separate "Family and Friends Pre-departure Orientation" that might prove helpful to your family. Often times, there are returning students and parents who can answer questions about their own experience, as well as study abroad professionals who work intimately with the student throughout the planning process. Remember, the study abroad office has a goal in mind: providing you with a safe, happy, and successful experience abroad. Invite your family to benefit from some of that goal as well.

6. Don’t forget the outcomes. It’s not unusual for study abroad professionals to field the question, “Why study abroad?” The answer is usually a long-winded version of “why not?” To narrow it down for skeptical family members, focus on the following. Study abroad is not a once and done experience but one that has a lasting impact for your personal and professional future. It will add to your perspective in the classroom, become a talking point on your resume and help you grow and learn in ways that might not be possible on your college campus.

Above all, be honest, be open, and try to understand where your parents are coming from. Navigating study abroad procedures is not always easy, so check in with the experts and stay informed. And if you don’t know the answer or where to find it, ask!