6 Tips for Parents: Vacation or Education Abroad?

All parents fear the day they are asked to fund their child's first vacation or trip without them, and when the proposition of study abroad comes up, parents are often faced with many choices and questions. Is the program truly educational? Or is their child just looking for an all expenses paid vacation? The good news is, there are clear ways to differentiate between the two.

Dad, I would really, really love to study business abroad next semester…in Interlaken
I have to study in Australia, Mom, I just have to! You know I always wanted to go there, and it’s, like, a really great place to study education. I won’t have to deal with a language barrier and I promise I won’t go to the beach too often!
Hard to believe your son might study economics here.

Hard to believe your son might study economics here.

You’re about to pay tuition for your son or daughter to spend a semester abroad. What do you do when your child’s favorite program seems more like vacation than education? Here are 6 tips on how to distinguish Finland from Funland:

Read The Course Offerings of the Program Abroad

I first recommend reading the course offerings and comparing the rigorousness of the curriculum abroad to that of their home institution. This can be tricky but keep your eyes out for mentions of projects and final papers, and small class sizes. The classes abroad most likely have outside-the-classroom components, but these should not be dismissed as they urge students to explore their new location with an academic eye.

Is this program related to my daughter’s major?

Ask yourself, “Does this program target my child’s major (or minor)?” If so, your child may have better course offerings and a greater selection of courses abroad than they would at home because a program location’s curriculum is often highly tailored to one or two majors. Contact your child’s home college study abroad office for details, or see how much information their website provides.

Ask your child, “Will you receive credits toward your major (or minor)?” Study abroad can really mess up “the four year plan” if accreditation is not pre-approved. However, sticking to a program run by the home college most often provides a direct transfer of credit. In this case, the program is also likely to be of similar caliber to the home institution.

Will the credits transfer?

If credits from this study abroad program don’t turn out to transfer back to your child’s home institution, you may be about to pay for them to study these topics all over again. If your child is looking at a private program or a program offered through another university, do not assume that credit will transfer just because both colleges offer the same course titles. I stress the importance of having the credits pre-approved by the home university before the student accepts a specific program (the dean of your child’s school usually deals with this).

On another note, courses taken to complete a major or minor often have higher minimum grade requirements in order for them to count towards the major. Courses taken for elective credit, conversely, can often be passed with a D, requiring less study time. Sending your child on a program where they will study their major will require less party time and more academics.

Is the trip for beaches or for a real-world academic or extra-curricular passion?

If the program does not target your child’s major or minor, does the program/location fulfill one of your child’s academic interests or life goals? Passion is the key word here. If your daughter has consistently expressed interest in yoga and wants to study in India for general elective credit, perhaps it is a chance for her to develop (or reconsider) that passion and plan out how she can build a career around it. A study abroad experience is an excellent opportunity to discover new things about one’s self and generate new interests.

Ask the program provider, “Are there opportunities for research with this program or in this location?” A research project anywhere is a precious opportunity for your son to spark a new interest or gain experience in his field. Research abroad may additionally provide deep social interaction with locals, a unique and case-study based research topic, and a sweet final product to show off to professors upon arrival back at home.

When you say your program “teaches us Italian…”

Lastly, do some research on the location’s American social scene, especially if language immersion is a top priority. Locations such as Florence, Italy and Madrid, Spain have become such popular study abroad sites that use of foreign language is barely needed and the U.S. party scene clashes with the local one. A three-month party with a couple papers? Vacation.

It should be noted that there are many students mature enough and programs organized well enough for study abroad in Florence or Madrid to be a serious academic endeavor and highly rigorous at that.  

Study abroad can be both meaningful and fun

A study abroad program should not be so rigorous that your child does not have enough time or energy to explore his or her host city or do some weekend travel. Why go abroad if one is stuck inside studying? A semester away allows a student to escape the stresses of home university life for a couple of months while enriching his or her education with diversity and adversity. If that program in the Alps is carefully selected, your child will come home culturally and academically enlightened with only a minor goggle tan.