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How Study Abroad Makes Teens Less Awkward, More Confident

Arc d'Triomphe

Your child is finally ready to leave the nest of the motherland and fly off on an adventure overseas. It’s understandable to be a little anxious or concerned as your child prepares to spend an entire semester a whole continent (or two) away from you. You may even be second-guessing their choice to study abroad entirely – again, this is normal. But not all concerns are strictly confined to wondering if your kid even knows how to use an ATM with keys in a different alphabet.

There’s a huge part of study abroad that takes place outside the classroom, and the experience is about far more than just taking notes in a different classroom. Like the first day of school, it can be nerve-wracking wondering if your kid will fit in with the others, be able to make friends and adjust to his or her new environment.

Fortunately, study abroad by definition goes a long way toward facilitating those processes. So put your mind at ease, justifiably concerned parents – here are just a few of the ways study abroad will encourage new skills, both social and not, and make your child far less awkward by the time the semester ends.

Over the course of studying abroad, your child will:

Be forced to make friends

Shanghai restaurant

Most of us don’t study abroad with our entire dorm – in fact, it’s likely that your child may only know one or two other people in the program, if at all.

This can be daunting for the introverts out there, but ultimately a positive thing, since it’s hard to be shoved into the same space with a large group of people for an extended period of time without bonding with at least a few of them. Much of the fun of study abroad relies on shared experiences – exploring new neighborhoods, stumbling upon cool bars and restaurants, making the same embarrassing language mistakes, traveling together on weekends and, sometimes, going to class.

Going through a challenge together is one of the best ways to form strong friendships and emotions bonds (if it works for the Army, it can work for us), so it’s pretty much a guarantee that by the end of the semester, your child will have a whole dorm’s worth of new friends, and some great stories to go along with them.

Have to talk to strangers

One of the comfortable things about being at college is the way your entire life often seems perfectly contained inside that bubble – friends, classes, social life and often even work are within the same several-mile radius. Everyone knows the same nicknames for the buildings, the best night for dessert at the dining halls, and you can find out what’s happening over the weekend just by reading the posters hanging around campus or taped to the ground.

This bubble is dramatically shattered during study abroad – whether the student is in a giant city or a small town, he or she will not longer be residing in an airtight space protected from the lives of others. They'll have to branch out of this bubble.

Whether it’s getting directions to a landmark, figuring out how to use a confusing bus system or discovering the difference between five seemingly identical kinds of sliced meat, the answers to all questions will not be immediately available or obvious to your child, and they will certainly not be confined to interacting only with fellow students. If your child had problems starting conversations or talking to strangers before, it’s almost guaranteed that those fears will be gone by the time the return flight rolls around.

Become more independent

Following up on the previous point, there can often be a lot of hand-holding that happens at universities, especially during freshman year. Though most study abroad programs offer extensive orientation, the hands let go significantly faster than they do at most US-based universities.

These universities expect students to be able to take charge of their own learning experiences and be responsible without daily reminders or a bookstore that knows exactly which copies students need before they even walk through the door.

This is partially because the nature of foreign universities is somewhat different – the vast majority, especially those in large cities, are what we think of as “commuter schools,” with students living at home rather than on campus and simply arriving for classes. There’s also, often, a less intuitive organizational system (if there’s any system at all, which sometimes might not seem to be the case), and not everything is available online. This is to say that these universities expect students to be able to take charge of their own learning experiences and be responsible without daily reminders or a bookstore that knows exactly which copies students need before they even walk through the door.

It may take a few late assignments or relocated classrooms, but by the end of the semester, your student will be far more responsible and able to get things done without expecting help or guidance from others.

Build greater confidence

Costa Rica

There’s no better way to become confident than surviving five months of constantly feeling like an incompetent idiot. No, seriously – so much of study abroad involves being placed in situations where you have no context, no background and no idea what the appropriate or socially acceptable behavior is.

While this can be terrifying at first (and lead to some hilarious interactions), it’s a foolproof way to increase confidence and faith in one’s own ability. It’s hard to see at the moment, but by the time your child returns from study abroad, he or she will have an amazing list of accomplishments and challenges met. Being able to say, “yeah, I did that, and I did it correctly” is a wonderful self-esteem boost, and that confidence will stay for years to come.

Acquire numerous valuable and useful life skills

Study abroad leads to all sorts of intangible benefits, it’s true, but some of the skills gained are about as practical as it gets. It might be your child’s first time washing laundry by hand, memorizing a confusing train schedule or budgeting savings to make sure they’ll stretch until the end of vacation week.

For some students, it might be the first time they’ve lived somewhere meals aren’t automatically provided – life without dining hall cards can be scary. Learning to function without the safety net of parents, friends and the university support system can be a steep learning curve at first, but it’s also an important step in establishing independence and becoming a functional human being who is capable of washing underwear without ruining it.

All of the personality definition and confidence boosting is great, of course, but the practical life skills will serve your child for the rest of his or her life.

Become better communicators – in more than one language

Not all of us are born with perfect elocution skills, but we all learn to talk to each other somehow. However, all the communication strategies we know get turned on their head when we start to try to function in another language – from interpersonal relationships to hand gestures, everything is different.

All of the personality definition and confidence boosting is great, of course, but the practical life skills will serve your child for the rest of his or her life.

This can be frustrating at first, especially if you’re starting from zero, but the challenge of trying to express oneself without knowing the vocabulary leads people to find increasingly creative and effective ways to get thoughts and ideas across. Soon enough, your child will be able to express him- or herself in more than one language, and will likely become a better communicator in English, too. Plus, going through the process of learning a second language tends to make people much more sympathetic and open to talking to English language learners once back in their home countries.

Have their ideas, norms and values challenged repeatedly, and emerge a more secure, self-assured person

Self assured

So this is the catch-all summary of why study abroad is not just a great idea for academic reasons, but for personal ones as well. Building off of all the other reasons listed above, studying abroad is all about being forced outside of a bubble, challenging ourselves on a daily basis and discovering new skills, abilities and beliefs we never knew we had.

Putting ourselves in a different context can change our feelings about religion, culture, economics, art, friendship, poverty, conflict, feminism, discrimination and just about any other topic you can think of. But, equally importantly, it changes how we see ourselves. We go from average college students who get lost if we go three blocks from our houses without a GPS, to competent, capable individuals who can find our way cross-country, cook an entire three-course meal, make friends in a room full of strangers and distinguish between Malbec and Shiraz. We gain faith in our own abilities and learn which things are most important to us – the difference between things that are innate and those that are culturally imposed.

High school and college years are all about developing and seeking out a more comfortable identity. While there’s no shortcut through this process, studying abroad is one way to accelerate the valuable growth and development that comes from finding our way through a challenging experience, one mistake or accomplishment at a time. Study abroad won’t automatically give your child a set of impeccable social skills, but it will go a long way toward helping him or her come out of that shell and face the world head-on.

Photo Credits: France, The Leaf Project, and Benjamin Vander Steen.

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.