Managing Expectations: Before, During and After Education Abroad

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: BEFORE

What can parents reasonably expect from a good education abroad program?

Well-organized mechanics and smooth coordination between the host institution and providers.  A timely and courteous response to questions when things go wrong, or when there are unexpected delays in the process. Effective and timely communications between students, parents, home and host institutions, and/or third-party providers.

What are some "unreasonable" expectations? That student can walk into a study abroad office and be quickly told what and "ideal" experience will be. The process of selection is a complicated and highly individualized one. Advisers can help guide students in this process, but they cannot offer a "one-size-fits-all solution to the question of where to go or what to do. An absolute guarantee of your child's safety while abroad. That because there are fees over and above tuition, the accommodations, meal plans, etc. will be similar to those on a package tour, or even the home campus. In many places accomodations will be very simple, and not similar to home. Isn't that part of the idea ?  Instant response to routine, non-emergency questions from program advisers or providers, even after business hours and on weekends.

Talking with your child about safety abroad: "Please be Careful!"Before your child goes abroad, talk to him about any concerns you may have about his safety and give him the chance to express this. If there are specific concerns you have about the country in which he will be traveling, talk about them with the program provider. Although they cannot guarantee your child's safety, or anyone's, in most cases these professionals will be able to give you a good sense of what the real risks are, how to minimize any dangers, and what your child can do to keep himself safe and healthy while on study abroad.

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?

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 website 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/tip/emergencies/emergencies_1212.html. Your child should also ask for 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 form 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.

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: AFTER

Expect change, and expect the change to be positive. Even when the period of study abroad has been relatively short, the child who returns to you will probably not be the same one you sent away. Almost always, the one who returns is a "new and improved" version,  full of new passions and energy, and often with inspiring new ideas about his future possibilities. Recognize and celebrate the change, marvel at how even a short time abroad can inspire incredible intellectual and emotional growth in students this age, and appreciate all your child has gained from this experience.

Expect that your child may take a while to readjust to the life at home. During this period, she may express impatience with or intolerance of her family, home community, school or nation. Try not to be defensive. Listen to what she has to say, and show her that you are interested in hearing about the new thoughts and perspectives she's absorbed while abroad. You can add tempering observations, but try not to just shut her down-an important part of the intercultural learning takes place after the study abroad experience, and questioning one's own country and its ways are important part of the process. She's not really rejecting you, or her country; she's making meaning of a very meaningful experience. It takes time to sort it all out, and there are often moments of extremes along the way.

Acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous changes your child may have gone through since he left home. Let him know you can see how much he has matured (and avoid the temptation to instantly draw attention to some of the ways he may not have). Above all give him the chance to tell you about his experience. Most students say that their experiences studying abroad were "life-changing". Don't push or pry, but do encourage him to share that important and special feeling with you, if and when he's ready.

 

Editor: Jan Steiner, NAFSA
Original Design and Production: Drew Banks, NAFSA 2007
Update Design and Production: Cheryl Collins, NAFSA 2008
©2007 by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Washington, DC. All rights reserved