So your baby is all grown up and just went off to college. You bought the twin-XL sheets, made it through the tearful goodbye, and then the first couple of years of college went by in the blink of an eye. But now, they're calling to say they're thinking about studying abroad.
While this can certainly be hard on parents (just ask mine!) study abroad is also an amazing opportunity for your student to learn more about themselves and the world, beyond a traditional classroom setting.
I worked as a study abroad administrator for three years, with a university, private providers, and on-campus abroad leading groups of students. In total, I participated in five different programs as a student myself, led another three, and have prepared over 3,000 students to go overseas. In that time, I've learned a few things and gotten more than a couple of earfuls from my own parents, and I want to share that knowledge with you with this comprehensive guide to study abroad for parents.
Ready to learn more about study abroad and ways to support your prospective traveler? Let's get started.
Why should I let my child study abroad?
Study abroad is a decision that will impact the rest of their lives. It reaches far beyond just academics and careers, as it can also open their minds to understanding new cultures, experiences, and create global friendships.
While study abroad’s rewards are immense, it can also rattle the nerves of even the most easy-going parents. But before giving it the boot, it’s important to have a reflection on why study abroad is so valuable to your child’s development, and to explore solutions to your big concerns.
The more knowledge you have, the more likely you will feel comfortable with the idea of study abroad and be better equipped to support them on this life-changing experience.
In our globally-connected world, spending a semester or year in another country gives students a unique chance to develop skills that will benefit them both professionally and personally.
If you’re a bit nervous about letting them spread their wings, remember to focus on some of the positive impacts that this experience will bring.
Benefits of study abroad
- Teaches real-world skills that aren’t found in classrooms: Today, cultural awareness and second language proficiency are two skills that companies drastically need. Study abroad can help students hone both, which can set them apart in today’s competitive job market.
- Improves proficiency in a second language: Experiencing daily life in another country means learning how a language is actually spoken, such as the facial expressions, body language, and local idioms that a textbook simply cannot teach. Studying Mandarin for a few hours a week at home won’t deliver the same results as would living in Beijing for a semester. Total immersion is the bridge to language fluency.
- Builds global friendships and connections: One of the most enriching parts of studying abroad are the global friendships. Many of these friendships will continue long after students return home. Your child will also likely be around others who are studying in their field, which can greatly expand their global, professional network.
- Helps to develop confidence and independence: Adapting to culture shock, trying bizarre foods, and figuring out a new subway system are all part of the experience! Students often return home with a renowned sense of self-confidence in their abilities to problem solve and adapt to life’s challenges, which is a great mindset to have!
Read more: 10 Real Benefits of Studying Abroad
How do you pick a study abroad program?
Picking the perfect location and program for your student's study abroad adventure is essential. You'll want to choose a location that is both inspiring and exciting, while also picking a program that supports your child's academic goals and growth, and ultimately, won't delay their graduation.
Some of the top variables to consider while picking a program are location(s), cost, program length, semester (summer, spring, fall, academic year, or winter), and whether or not the credits are transferrable. Knowing exactly when your student wants to study abroad and having a few possible locations in mind will be helpful for the planning and researching process.
Your first and best resource is the study abroad office at their school, since they will know all the approved programs available. Most have robust websites with lists or databases of all the possible programs, allowing interested parents to peruse the choices from afar.
You can also search for programs and read verified reviews, here at Go Overseas. If you find a program that interests you and your student, definitely reach out to the provider with all of your questions.
Key questions to ask
- Will the school offer full credit for this program and course load?
- Will this delay the path to graduation?
- Will financial aid apply? If so, how much?
- What is included in the tuition?
- When will the semester start and end?
- What type of in-country support will there be?
Lastly, you'll definitely want to consider reading reviews from past alum. You'll learn a lot hearing about their first-hand experiences and it may even help relieve any anxiety you may have.
Can you study abroad on a budget?
You might have been completely on board this study abroad train…until you saw the price tag. But fear not, there are many ways to help fund this trip. Plus, if you and your student budget accordingly, it can be quite affordable.
Encourage your student to apply for scholarships through their study abroad program, home university, local cultural organizations, and national scholarship funds. The earlier the better!
You can also try fundraising. From offering private lessons to cleaning houses, you'll be surprised to see how many different and unique ways your child can lend a hand and raise money themselves.
The key is to keep your communication about financing your child's study abroad trip open. The earlier you can begin fiscally planning for the trip, the better. Don't fear having your kid put in some (or a lot!) of legwork to make their semester abroad a reality.
Tips for studying abroad while on a budget
- Keep track of all your expenses, including pre-trip expenses: Non-negotiables such as vaccinations, passport fees, travel insurance, etc should be considered as part of your budget.
- Encourage your student to utilize public transportation: Taking taxis or Ubers everywhere can get costly. Try opting for monthly bus passes or see what kind of train system their study destination has.
- Be mindful of how much you spend on excursions and activities: You should definitely encourage them to participate in the activities they're excited about. Just make sure they're being mindful of their spendings. You'll also be surprised to see how many free or low-cost activities there are, once you put in some research.
How can I ensure they stay safe while they're abroad?
The only thing scarier than your child experiencing an emergency is when they go through one far away from you -- whether it's running out of money on a trip or getting sick. Being prepared is essential.
How to prepare before your student studies abroad
- Get travel insurance: Whether they're experiencing a minor inconvenience (like a sore throat or common cold) or a country-wide situation, having the support that travel insurance covers will definitely come in handy.
- Learn about the host country: Becoming familiar with the local laws, customs, and embassy locations, will help you both feel more comfortable. For country-specific health information, safety tips, travel advice, and current travel warnings, visit travel.state.gov.
- Make sure they know their medical history: Have a conversation with your child about being safe abroad and your family's medical history. You can also create a document for them to carry, in their study location's primary language, with info such as allergies, medications, history, etc in case of emergencies. If your child takes medications, make sure they have enough of their prescription before they go abroad.
- Be smart with valuables and money: Just like at home, pickpocketing can happen anywhere, so being extra-cautious in crowded areas is the best advice. Tell your child to only carry small amounts of cash whenever they go out, and to leave the rest in a secure place in their room.
- Keep backups of everything handy: Have backup copies of your student's passport saved on your computer or in Google drive. For a stolen wallet, have a way to wire them money, or suggest they keep an emergency credit/debit card separate from their wallet.
How can I stay in touch with my child during their trip?
The number one complaint I heard from parents when I was a study abroad administrator was that students didn’t communicate enough with their parents. Meanwhile, I remember studying abroad and being so busy with classes, site visits, and making friends that I forgot how long it had been since my family had heard from me. Sorry mom!
Set up a "safe arrival call"
This one is key to keeping your stress levels down. Before your child hops on a plane, sit down and figure out a safe arrival signal, and when it should be sent by. Be sure to take into account time zones and connectivity issues (especially if they're headed to a developing nation). Often, a safe arrival email is more feasible than a phone call.
Recently, some programs have start setting up newsletters, blogs, or email list-serves to notify families, so have your student ask if there is a similar service.
Keep in touch but be flexible
Set up a schedule, and make sure it works for both you and your child. They may not have a set schedule for the first couple of weeks, so try to be flexible. The schedule, however, will help make sure you don’t go too long without hearing from them. Life abroad is full of new experiences, and it’s all too easy for time to pass without remembering to call or write.
Be clear about when you want to hear from them
If your student is spending a long weekend in Paris or they have finals coming up and you normally Skype on Saturday afternoon, arrange a different time to talk in advance, so there are no surprises. Many parents like a brief check-in at the beginning and end of short side trips, but it often surprises students to hear their parents expected that.
To a student, they’re already away -- what difference does it make where they go this weekend? In some instances, though, this may be strategic; most students conveniently forget to mention their side trip to Amsterdam, or else play up their interest in bicycles and canals.
Even so, encourage them to send a quick text, email, or hop on the phone before and after a trip. In any case, it's good travel practice to let someone not on a trip know where you are, when you've left, and where you're headed next -- just in case!
Avoid calling the program provider unless it's an emergency
One last tip: try to save calling your point of contact at your child's study abroad office or program unless it's an emergency. Some students are terrible at keeping in touch, but rest assured that no news = good news. If something truly terrible has happened (in the very, very, very unlikely case that it does!), you will be notified immediately.
Apps for communicating long distance
- Whatsapp: This free smart phone application lets you send messages to other phones who also use this application. WhatsApp works internationally, and with no SMS fees, it’s a great option if you plan on texting your child a lot.
- Zoom: The pandemic has definitely gotten everyone all too familiar with the video-chatting app, Zoom. Zoom is a great resource for catching up and an easy way for them to share their travels! Maybe they can give you a tour of their room? Or walk you through a quick souvenirs haul?
- Facebook: If you've already joined thousands of other parents embarrassing their kids on Facebook everyday, you can utilize the chat function to quickly touch base with your child. Consider downloading the "Facebook Messenger App" to ease this process even more.
How can I welcome them back home?
It may seem like you’re home free, but there are a few more loose ends to wrap up. Be sure to ask if there are any post-trip academic requirements, especially if it was a short-term, faculty-led program.
Keep an eye out for reverse culture shock, which is basically the feeling of coming home and realizing it isn’t quite home anymore and your student doesn’t quite fit in. Try to be patient with their need to use foreign slang or constantly refer to friends and memories you know nothing about, or their sudden desire to travel again almost immediately after you got them back safe and sound.
More importantly, ask them lots of questions! Get excited about hearing about their trip because they'll undoubtedly be gushing with stories and will want nothing more than to have you listen to them.
Even if your student doesn’t say it enough, they will forever be grateful that you supported them and saw the value in this experience, which will shape who they are for years to come. You may even be surprised at the maturity of the person standing before you in the airport. But then they’ll ask if you made their favorite mac and cheese, and after they wolf it down, they’ll fall asleep in their childhood bed. Looking in on them you’ll know it was all worth it and they’re still your baby, no matter how worldly they become.