STEP 3: Helping Your Child Make the Most out of the International Experience
Staying in Touch: Creating Your Family's Communications Plan
Many of today's students (and parents) are used to the wonderful convenience of 24/7, instant communications available through cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, etc. (And now there is VoIP that lets you make calls through your computer, sometimes for free.) While these forms of instant communication are invaluable, especially in emergency situations, allowing us to stay in touch with our children, they can have an unfortunate effect on students' ability to become fully immersed in a foreign culture.
It's important to talk with your child about how, and how often, you will communicate with each other while he is abroad so that you will not worry, and he will not be overly focused on matters at home. Most study abroad advisers encourage students to touch base with their parents as soon as possible after they have arrived in their new location, to assure them that they have safely arrived and are settled in. After that it's best to maintain regular but not overly frequent communication with them, and to find ways to use your communications to support and encourage their immersion into the culture rather than distracting them from it. It's not a bad idea to have a prearranged system for getting in touch with each other in the case of a national or international emergency or communications breakdown: for example. Designated relatives or close family friends to call in the U.S. and if possible, in the part of the world where she is staying in the event you have trouble contacting each other.
The cost of telephone communications is usually less expensive when calling from the U.S than from abroad. Check with your long-distance telephone provider to see if they have an international plan: you may want to have it activated during the period your child is abroad. (Ask if there are higher rates for making calls to a cell phone.) In most places, international calling cards purchased abroad offer the best value and greatest convenience for students calling home. Cell phones are a mixed blessing: some programs offer them to all student participants. In other programs, they are strongly discouraged and/or may be prohibitively expensive to use. In any case, overuse of cell phone communication with family and friends at home is one major way of undermining the intercultural experience your child is seeking to gain in studying abroad.
If your child is busy and fully engaged in the study abroad experience, he will have less time to spend e-mailing or calling you and his friends back home. (It may also be a fairly costly expense to be online while abroad, or the Internet may not be easily accessible.) This is a positive thing, and should be viewed as such by you. Encourage your child to communicate with you when she can, and to tell you about all the new sights she is seeing and things she is learning. This will help her make the most of her experience abroad.
Supporting Your Child Through Culture Shock and/or Homesickness
Almost everyone who participates in a study abroad program (or who travels abroad in any other context for that matter) is almost certain, to a greater or lesser degree, to experience culture shock at certain moments in the process.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, defines culture shock as "a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation." Most study abroad professionals would hasten to add that even with adequate preparation, experiencing culture shock intermittently throughout the period of study abroad (especially in the beginning) is a normal part of the experience. In fact, unpleasant and disorienting though the experience may be at times, culture shock actually presents students with some of the best opportunities they will have for exactly the kind of intercultural learning and personal growth that is one of the best, and most lasting, benefits of study abroad.
How can parents recognize, and best help their children deal with, the symptoms of culture shock?
Culture shock is rarely identified as such by a student who is experiencing it: he is much more likely to perceive the problem as something wrong with the country he is in, the program he is participating in. the teachers at his host institution, his program advisers, his roommates, the food, the "peculiar/disgusting/annoying" habits and ways of the local population, and so on.
Managing Expectations: During
What are some reasonable expectations for a study abroad experience?
- Experienced, responsible staff who are available to students for emergencies on a 24/7 basis.
- Safe and (relatively) clean accommodations.
- Support, assistance, and advice from on-site staff in resolving problems. (Note: This does not mean solving problems for him.)
- An academically sound program.
- That the student abroad will have "I hate Country X days," as well as "I love Country X days." This is a normal and natural part of the up-and-down cycle of adjustment to another culture.
What are some “unreasonable” expectations?
- That accommodations, food, academic expectations, etc. will be similar to, or "as good as," those found on the home campus. Remember, the idea is to experience a foreign culture: frequently that means things will NOT be the same!
- The maintenance of 24/7 communication between students abroad, and parents and friends back home. (This is not so much an unreasonable expectation as a bad idea.) It's important for parents and friends of students abroad to realize that maintaining their customary patterns of communication may rob students of their chance to have the full cross-cultural experience they traveled so far to get.
- That every day will be a good day. Why would this be any truer while students are abroad than it is when they are at home?
Culture shock can be especially intense in situations where the child is dealing with a foreign language in addition to all the other cultural differences. He may have the irrational feeling that he wishes he never had to hear another word of the language he went there to learn! This too is a very natural part of the process of immersing oneself in a foreign culture and language. Listen sympathetically, and let him know that he is not alone in feeling this way at least occasionally.
Many times a good night's sleep, or simply a more satisfactory day the next day, will make all the difference in the world.
Your child may express the feeling that he made a big mistake in deciding to study abroad. Or he may express regret at leaving behind loved ones, activities, or opportunities he passed up in favor of this experience, all of which look much more attractive now than they did at the time he made his decision to study abroad. In fact, very often what the student is experiencing when he describes these problems and his unhappiness in the new environment is the discomfort and orientation that accompanies living in a place that has different values, expectations, standards, and practices than those that exist at home: in short, many of the cultural differences that students going abroad are seeking to explore. That he is having to deal with this adjustment without his customary support system of family, friends, and teachers makes the challenge more difficult, but certainly not impossible. Meeting this challenge helps him develop more independence, self-confidence, and maturity-all hallmarks of a good study abroad experience.
How should parents respond to a student's complaints while she is abroad? How can you tell from across the ocean, whether she is being overly demanding; whether she is experiencing culture shock; or if there is something truly unacceptable, or even dangerous, in the situation she is describing to you?
Of course there is no one answer that can apply to all situations in which parents are in the worrisome position of receiving unhappy reports from their children who are abroad But the following may help in sorting out the normal ups and downs in the process of cultural adjustment from a situation that is more serious and should be referred to the on-site support staff.
Wait and see.
Remember the popular song back in the 1960s, about a homesick kid at summer camp who writes home, listing all the reasons he hates where he is and begging his parents to come and bring him home immediately? By the end of the song, the sun has come out, ("guys are swim min', guys are sailin"'), and the parents are being urged to "disregard this letter."
Parents of students abroad are much more likely to hear about what's going wrong than what's going right. The instant nature of e-mail and cell phone communications make it very easy for students to turn to parents with petty concerns and problems that, in an earlier day, they would have worked out on their own in short order. Avoid the temptation to immediately step into your child's problem-solving process. (This is one good reason for avoiding a 24/7 pattern of communication in the first place) Many routine problems will have resolved themselves, or students will have found a resolution on their own, within 24 hours.
Urge your child to be the one to find a solution to the problem, and to consult with the resident or onsite director for advice and assistance if necessary.
Be responsive and sympathetic to your child's remarks without becoming overly involved in the details. Try not to instantly leap to negative conclusions, express regret that the student chose to\ study abroad, or otherwise emphasize the difficult aspects of this process. Do follow up in a day or two, and ask whether the issue was resolved. Often it will have ceased to be an issue.
Remind your child that he went abroad to experience something different: and that sometimes "different" is uncomfortable.
Part of what he's there for. is to learn to deal with a new and different place on his own-let him have a successful experience, and the growing confidence that can come from such success.
Visiting Your Child Abroad: Timing Is Everything!
Planning to join your child while she is abroad can be a positive experience for all of you, if it is well-timed. Most educators agree that the beginning of the program is not a good time for parents to be there: this is a very important period for your child to be on her own. She needs time to get to know other participants in the program, attend orientation, and make the transition to life in her new environment. Your presence at this time, while possibly helpful in a stressful time, is also very likely to be a hindrance to her learning to make decisions, solve problems, and adjust to the new situation in her own way. It can also be disruptive to the whole group, even if you are the nicest person in the world and you think you are staying completely out of the way. It's not a question of the nature of your interaction with the group, or your relationship with your child-your mere presence is likely to be an interruption of the process.
If you plan to join your child toward the end of her stay, or after the program ends, she will be able to show you around, demonstrate any new foreign language and other skills she has learned, and en joy your company. That should be worth waiting for!
So many parents today plan to visit their children on study abroad programs that those parents who are not planning such travel may wonder if they are being remiss in their parental duty. Certainly not! There is much to be said for your daughter having this experience "all to herself' and sharing it with you by writing and telling you about it, and showing pictures and souvenirs when she returns. Do be sure to leave plenty of time for this important kind of sharing when she gets back home-it is one of the best things you can do to help make her readjustment to life at home go more smoothly.
"I Never Want to Come Home Again!" "I Want to Come Home Right Now!" and Other Common Scenarios
My daughter hasn't even come home yet, and she's already talking about going back. Is this just pie-in-the sky fantasizing? Or have we lost her forever? How should I respond to this kind of talk?
If your daughter begins talking about wanting to spend more time where she is studying, rather than dismiss it as idle talk or fantasy, or become worried about if and when you will ever see her again, appreciate the fact that she is thoroughly engaged in the experience and enjoying it. Encourage her to look into what possibilities are available for additional study, work, or internship possibilities while she is still there. While much information is now available on the Internet, there is no substitute for on-the-ground research and face-to-face interaction. It would be better for her to look into these plans while she's there and learn how best to prepare for them, or realize they're not such a good idea after all, than to find out later the hard way.
Many students go through a period of thinking they want to stay in the study abroad location, or return to it Most of them don't follow through, at least not while they're still in school. But for those who do, additional study or work abroad can be a very positive outcome of an international experience, and good preparation for a future career. Don't nip her plans in the bud: encourage her to find out where they may lead. Whether her plans come to fruition or not, she's learning how to explore her options and maximize her possibilities. This is a good thing!
What if my son calls home and says he hates where he is and he wants to come home?
When those "I hate X-country'' days hit (and they will I), remind him that "something different" was what he signed up for when he signed up for study abroad. Urge him to exercise patience and to keep his sense of humor and perspective. Here are a few things students abroad should not expect:
Every day will be a good day. Is every day at home a good day? Of course not. Why should it be any different in a foreign country where your child doesn't speak the language, doesn't understand many of the most basic customs, doesn't know how to complete the simplest errands, and has to make all new friends? Tell her to remember that sometimes volatile ups and downs are a natural and normal fact of life, especially on study abroad, and especially in the beginning, (It can become a bigger factor again later in the stay, as the end approaches and the prospect of returning home, where life is "reasonable," nears) Urge her to hang in there and get the most of every day until she is home again.
Accommodations/food/academic expectations will be similar to what is available on the home campus. Some students are shocked to find out just how different life in another country can be. They may be distressed when they find that certain comforts and facilities-television in every room, and ubiquitous, cheap (or free) computer and Internet access, etc., are less available than what they are accustomed to. They may find themselves in a place where people find the notion of vegetarianism (especially veganism) to be puzzling to say the least. (Some vegetarians may want to take a hiatus while they are abroad, for reasons of practicality and health, as well as the desire to fully experience the host culture.) Female students may be appalled at sexist attitudes they encounter or aggressive and unwelcome attention in the streets. Students may be disoriented to find that professors in foreign universities expect much more of them and are far less available to them than professors on their home campuses. All of these things may be part of the reality of life abroad they may also be part of the reason your child will come to appreciate life in the U.S. more when she has returned. Urge her not to be constantly comparing conditions in the host country to life at home, and judging the host culture as lacking. There are benefits and drawbacks to nearly every difference she will experience: encourage her to make the most of the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.
My child seems to be spending all her time with the other Americans in her program. How do I encourage her to make new international friends while she is away?
Some very short programs may offer very little possibility for students to have meaningful interactions with foreign students. In that case, there's probably not much to be done, although in these circumstances, occasionally separating from the group (during the day, in a safe area) for some alone time in a café, museum, or park is a good idea and a way for students to at least be better able to observe the foreign culture Encourage your child to remember that she should make the most of the foreign experience, without minimizing the importance of friendships she may be developing with other American students, or dismissing the importance of her moving about with the group if that is what makes her feel more comfortable and safe.
Students who are away for a longer time will quite naturally have more opportunity to get to know foreign students This is obviously a good thing, but it's also important for students to take cultural differences into account and exercise even more caution in planning social activities with people they don't know very well in a foreign country.
Encouraging your child to be cautious and prudent without encouraging prejudice or undue fear on the one hand, or making her think you are overly protective on the other, can be a delicate matter. But remember that just as when she is at home, rather than a lecture, she needs the benefit of your advice, your greater life experience, and your perspective. Recognize that she probably knows more about the specifics of the situation she's in than you do; but don't be too hesitant to share your concerns and your wisdom with her either. She still needs your advice!
What To Do In An Emergency
The best source of centralized information for U.S. citizens in a true international or national emergency is the U.S. Department of State. Their Web site has information about how to contact them, receive information in a crisis, and get help with various kinds of emergencies: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/emergencies/emergencies_l212.html. Your child should also ask program providers in advance what their emergency plan is, and get 24/7 contact numbers for program advisers both in the U.S. and at the study abroad site. Of course in an emergency, some of these systems can be compromised. In some emergency situations, whether international or not, parents may hear from their children via cell phones before the program advisers or the study abroad office has been able to confirm their whereabouts and safety. This is a time to share information with program advisers calmly and efficiently, and for parents and program advisers to work cooperatively with each other with the common goal of ensuring student safety and well-being. This is also the reason for ensuring that both parents and students have those 24/7 contact numbers in advance.
Office of International Programs
Farrington Building, Suite 116, Huntsville, TX 77340