How To Talk To Your Students About Study Abroad

by Kelly Holland

Maybe you talk to your students once a day, or all the time. On the phone, via text, maybe even on Twitter. As a parent, you hear their news in different ways. An A on an exam, a really difficult day, the opportunity to join a new club, or something even bigger, like the chance to travel to another country and take a study program abroad 3,000 miles away from home.

Mom and Dad visiting at the university.
Mom and Dad visiting at the university. Photo by Kelly Holland

When you put it like that, the situation sounds dire. You’ve just adjusted to your student being away from home at university, and now they want to go even further afield. It sounds scary, but it’s also the opportunity of a lifetime. Don’t panic: Here are five tips for talking to your student about studying abroad.

1. Show your support

Your student values your opinion, even if it’s not always obvious. How can you show your support? Maybe you’ve traveled yourself and witnessed the benefits of exploring a new culture firsthand. Maybe you’ve never traveled at all, so your student is about to embark into uncharted territory for the both of you. No matter what, share your own thoughts and experiences and be honest. Your student might not always like what you have to say, but it will help them consider the many sides of a study abroad experience. Working through questions together will allow you both to learn more about the process, and each other.

2. Empower your student

Ultimately, the experience belongs to your student. You will not be on the bus with them in Rome, and you will not be as readily available to them as you are now at home. The best advice for empowering your student is to point them to reliable resources, including the study abroad office at their university and their host institution or provider abroad. As tempting as it may be to pick up the phone and solve a financial aid crisis or course registration issue, encourage your student to be an active participant in all parts of the process and let them navigate things themselves. Not only does this hold them accountable for the important stuff, but it also teaches them to own the experience from start to finish. Building confidence in skills like these before they leave will serve them well while abroad.

3. Discuss the “why” 

Just because their cousin’s boyfriend’s sister studied abroad in Rome last summer does not mean that the same program is the perfect fit for your student. The beauty of study abroad as it develops over time is that many different opportunities are available to students now, be it short-term service learning or semester-long internships. One of the most important questions to ask: Is your student going abroad for the right reasons? You want to look for connections to academic coursework, excursions that add to classroom experiences, and ties to personal and professional growth. Remember that not all programs are created equally, so although the location may be the same, the itinerary may differ and therefore the experience will be uniquely impactful. Focusing on aspects of daily life like living arrangements, getting around a new city, and meeting new people will also help your student articulate the reasons they have chosen a specific study abroad.

Mother and daughter

4. Consider the outcomes 

Parents are often much more attuned to the value added equation: What are you gaining? How is this improving your college career? What am I paying for? In answer to the question “why study abroad,” most study abroad offices will point to three things: academic, professional and personal growth. If your student can take a Biology course outside of a lab in the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, it will change their perspective on science. If your student can examine current issues in business through the lens of another culture, they can become that much more marketable in the eyes of a future employer. If your student can leave the comfort of their home, family and university life to live in an entirely new place, they will grow immeasurably just by boarding the plane.

5. Don’t go it alone

Just like preparing to send your student to university, there are many questions that come up along the way. That’s normal! Study abroad is a new experience for many families, and there are resources available to you to provide guidance. Your student’s university study abroad office works with parents and students alike, so don’t hesitate to reach out with questions. Some schools have a separate “Family and Friends” pre-departure orientation that might prove helpful to your family. Often times, there are returning students and parents in attendance who can answer questions about their own experience, as well as study abroad professionals who work closely with the student process. If you turn to the Internet for additional resources, please be sure to seek reliable information. If it looks fake, it probably is! Stick with accredited programs and well-known resources for additional support.

Above all, if you have questions – just ask. Studying abroad can be a long road for both you and your student, and it helps to have some expert input along the way. Be supportive, be honest, and be enthusiastic, and then prepare your fridge for postcards from abroad!