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Should I Let My Child Study Abroad?

Should I Let My Child Study Abroad?

Most parents likely have a number of legitimate concerns about study abroad. From high program fees to questions about safety, you might be wondering if you should even let your kid study abroad in the first place.

Study abroad might seem like an excuse to take a six-month vacation, but in reality, it's so much more than that.

Since parents are a hugely influential factor in a student's decision to study abroad or not, we want to shed some light on a few common objections before you put your foot down and say no completely. Though there are some circumstances when study abroad might not be a great idea, in general, most barriers can be overcome.

By discussing these common objections, we hope to offer some answers or solutions that may help put your mind more at ease about the idea of your child taking off to the other side of the world.

1. You're Worried About Safety

In this age of perpetual fear about terrorism and pandemics, it’s perfectly understandable that you might worry about the safety of anyone traveling overseas, particularly when it’s your child.

While it's natural to feel anxious about your son or daughter living abroad, there are a few facts that may help put your mind at ease:

  • Student safety is the top priority of any reputable program provider, and organizations have intensive protocols and measures in place to ensure that students are kept as safe as possible at all times.
  • The most common danger is petty theft, which you can prevent by educating your kid on safe habits and / or by investing in travel insurance.
  • Easier access to alcohol can play a big factor in study abroad risks -- make sure you talk to your kids about drinking responsibly.
  • Most parents feel that their students are just as safe abroad as they are at home.
  • Still feeling anxious? Talk to an international safety expert at your student's study abroad provider, and read up on potential risks in their host country.

It's true that some other countries have different safety standards when it comes to things like highway repair, transportation, or air quality, but no study abroad provider is going to operate in a location that would put students at any significant risk. If there's a program in a given location, it means that the organization, universities, independent assessors and the U.S. government all feel that it's safe enough for students to be there.

If you're still concerned about the safety of your son/daughter on their study abroad trip, work with them to pick a destination that you both feel is safe. Malta, for example, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world -- much lower than anywhere in the U.S.

2. You're Worried That it's More Like a "Vacation"

Morocco

Study abroad might seem like an excuse to take a six-month vacation, but in reality, it’s so much more than that. Not only does studying abroad provide an opportunity for students to experience learning in a completely different culture and environment, but the experience of living abroad helps strengthen other types of skills, like communication and self-sufficiency, not to mention building that all-important cultural competency that everyone seems to want these days.

And you don't even have to take my word for it -- just ask the experts.

"International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st-century education," said Dr. Allan E. Goodman, President of the International Institute for Education, "Studying abroad is one of the best ways undergraduate and graduate students gain the international experience necessary to succeed in today's global workforce. And studying in another country prepares students to be real contributors to working across borders to address key issues in the world we share."

That said, if your student is already struggling in school already, this is one circumstance where study abroad might not be an option. Most programs will require that students have a minimum GPA of 2.5 - 3.0 (it varies).

3. You Don't Know How You'll Afford It

Studying abroad may not be cheap, but you might be surprised at how much it actually costs. By doing direct enrollment, for example, students can save a lot on tuition. In fact, many foreign universities are cheaper than those in the U.S. I know of one student who saved money by spending a semester in Prague, rather than paying for out of state tuition to the University of Washington.

The extra free time provides an opportunity for students to get out, explore, learn, and connect with their host country and culture, which is also an important part of the learning experience.

Further, depending on which program your child chooses and whether it is affiliated with their home university, you may still be eligible for the same financial aid that you would regularly receive, and there are additional scholarships specifically for students looking to go abroad. Many study abroad providers include a housing placement in the program cost, so that’s one major expense that you may not have to worry about.

The real concerns about study abroad finances often come from the cost of living, rather than tuition. It’s true that some popular study abroad cities – like London, Sydney, Istanbul, or Paris – can be extremely expensive, but they don’t necessarily have to be. On the other hand, there are a number of affordable study abroad destinations that have a much lower cost of living than most locations in the U.S., including Ecuador, Thailand, Ghana, or Costa Rica.

Studying abroad can provide a valuable opportunity for your child to learn about budgeting and managing their own finances, so it’s worthwhile to have a conversation about how they intend to spend money while abroad, how much extra traveling they plan to do, and where personal spending money will come from.

4. What's the Value? They're just "Goofing Off"

The prevailing image of students gallivanting around Europe on a series of weekend trips is hardly a realistic portrayal of study abroad programs these days. While students may not have the same demanding academic schedule abroad that they do at home, this extra time provides an opportunity for them to get out, explore, learn, and connect with their host country and culture, which is also an important part of the learning experience.

Learning Chinese Abroad

Yet there are also near-endless benefits to studying abroad, both concrete and intangible. Studying and living in another country exposes students to different political and belief systems, alternate styles and methods of education, diverse cultures, and helps students acquire a whole set of life skills – including problem-solving, cross-cultural communication and independence – just from learning to navigate life in another country (and language).

It’s true that students may be able to access some of this at their home university or in their own communities, but there’s really no substitute for the full, challenging, rewarding learning experience that comes from truly being immersed in another country and culture.

Further, there's no one-size-fits all study abroad program out there. Many leaders in the field have been creatively thinking about how they can improve the educational value of their study abroad programs.

For example, ISDSI, a study abroad program provider based in Thailand, has created an adventurous, culturally immersive, and academically rigorous program that lets students learn about the link between culture and ecology in Thailand. Semester at Sea focuses on comparative, rather than immersive, learning. Most importantly, though, by participating in experiential learning, students are gaining knowledge they wouldn't be able to receive in a traditional classroom environment. That's the whole point of study abroad.

5. But We don't Know Anyone in [Insert Host Country]

That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Part of the appeal of study abroad for some students lies in the opportunity to carve out a whole new social space, independent of their lives and social circles back home. This can sometimes be more difficult for students who are shy, introverted, or struggle to learn the local language, but “I need friends” is often a powerful motivator for students abroad to try something new, helping them forge deeper connections with their host country and learn more about the culture firsthand.

If you're worried about a lack of support network, don't. Your son/daughter's study abroad program (and the other parents involved) will become you and your kid's support network. If they're placed with a host family, you can rest even further assured that someone's looking out for them.

Besides, this probably isn’t even entirely true. When I decided to move abroad, I didn’t think I knew a single person who had been to Colombia. After my parents and I started telling people about my impending journey, we discovered that we actually knew plenty of people that had visited the country and multiple people who had even lived there at one point! Once you start asking around, you’ll likely be shocked by the international connections that emerge.

6. We Have No Idea Where They're Going to Live

Again, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel some anxiety about your child’s living situation, especially if it’s in a city that’s halfway across the world and totally unfamiliar to you.

First of all, it’s important to remember that plenty of other people live and thrive in that place as well, so there have to be decent housing options. Most students will either live in a dorm, with a host family, or in a shared apartment.

If you're worried about a lack of support network, don't. Your son/daughter's study abroad program (and the other parents involved) will become you and your kid's support network.

For those staying with a host family, study abroad program providers have a set network of trusted host families that they can call upon to host foreign students. These families have already been through an evaluation process and have usually hosted students previously, so they (and their homes) are vetted by program providers, which should help reassure you that your child won't be living in a Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs for five months.

If your child is planning on finding his/her own housing, for personal or financial reasons, there’s still no reason to panic. Study abroad organizations can often help find housing options through their local staff and connections, and organizations will often require staff approval before allowing students to commit to independent housing. We also have a very helpful article on finding study abroad housing independently if you need some ideas.

7. What if Something Bad Happens?

This is likely going to be a worry of yours no matter where your child is in the world, so it’s hardly realistic to try to talk you out of it. However, though you can’t protect your child from any possible danger, remind yourself that study abroad program providers, universities, and your government all have structures and protocols in place to protect program participants and citizens.

Many study abroad programs will require participants to inform program staff of travel plans outside of their host city, so the program should always have a record of where students are at all times. Study abroad participants are typically required to have some form of health insurance, so checking to make sure your child’s insurance will still work abroad can help guarantee that s/he will receive proper medical care if necessary.

If anything serious, like a natural disaster or civil unrest, does happen in your child’s host country, your embassy will be responsible for ensuring the safety of your child and all other citizens. For U.S. citizens abroad, it's helpful to register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), to help officials get in touch with them as quickly as possible if the need should arise.

Don’t forget, either, that there is plenty of technology that can help you keep in touch with your child across borders, from Skype for phone calls and video chat to messaging apps like WhatsApp or Viber to check in via message.

8. This isn't Relevant to their Degree / Future

India

Ahh yes, the age-old “but how will this look on the resume?" question. It’s a reasonable thing to ask, of course – people often worry about how to tie their life choices into a career trajectory or explain gaps between school or work in job interviews. Fortunately, this isn’t a major problem when study abroad is concerned – in fact, studying abroad can help make your son or daughter a more well-rounded student and more qualified job candidate in the future.

As many industries continue to go ever more global and the U.S. population gets increasingly diverse, demand has risen for candidates with international skills across just about any industry. Whether your child is studying business, pre-med, communications, engineering or theater, international experience will only help deepen their understanding of their major and chosen field.

Plus, it’ll help in future job interviews when your hopeful applicant needs to convince a potential manager of his ability to keep up with business meetings in Beijing, or demonstrate how her Spanish abilities will help her communicate with patients. In some ways, the global skills and knowledge gained through studying abroad may actually be far more relevant to the current job marketplace than the traditional liberal arts core education.

There are study abroad programs for every major. Just search around and find one.

9. Studying Abroad Might Affect their Ability to Graduate on Time

First of all, studying abroad isn’t the same thing as “taking time off” to work or travel on a gap year – studying is in the name, after all, so the point is that students continue, rather than pause, their studies while abroad. Though the classes may not look the same as they would at your son or daughter’s home university, they’re still university-level classes, and will usually be credited as such.

Of course, it is up to your child to make sure that their classes will transfer over to credits once they return to the U.S., (usually they'll petition for approval before departure) but that’s a conversation they will need to have with the study abroad office, program providers, or academic advisors.

Study abroad programs that are affiliated with universities ensure that courses recommended for students will fulfill credit requirements at most U.S. universities, and even programs that aren't directly affiliated with any one university usually have enough experience to direct students toward courses that will count for credit at their home universities.

When You Shouldn't Let Your Kid Study Abroad

So far, this article has focused a lot of the positives of study abroad and reasons why you should let your kid study abroad. However, we recognize that study abroad isn't for everyone and I'd like to point out a few circumstances in which it isn't a good idea:

  • Your kid isn't ready -- keep in mind that study abroad isn't the only opportunity to live abroad. If your kid doesn't feel mature or confident enough to study abroad yet, encourage them to take a gap year or intern abroad after college instead.
  • They're struggling academically -- as we mentioned before, students should have a solid academic standing in order to study abroad.
  • Family obligations -- truthfully, you do miss out on significant life events while abroad. Though your kid could make it work with a 1-month long summer program or flying home for a wedding / big event, if there's something they need to stick around for (e.g. sick relative), study abroad might get in the way.

As you can see, there really aren't that many reasons that should prevent you from supporting your son/daughter's decision to study abroad.

Will You Support Your Kid's Decision?

Obviously, we really hope you say yes to your kid studying abroad. It's an incredible experience that everyone here at Go Overseas has had the fortune to participate in and we wouldn't be where we are today if it wasn't for that decision.

Studying abroad can be scary for students, and often it produces even more anxiety for the parents who stay at home. While it's reasonable to discuss concerns about finances, safety and academics with your child before they go overseas, these questions shouldn't prevent your child from taking advantage of all the incredible opportunities and advantages that studying abroad has to offer. Besides, if you never had the option to study abroad yourself, now is your chance to live that experience through the eyes of one of your favorite people!

Photo Credits: Ian McGregor, Aurora Sauar, Katie Moore.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.