Since the only consistent thing in life is change, it should be no surprise that once we adjusted to sending our child off to college, she glanced at the horizon and discovered she hadn’t ventured quite far enough from home yet. One in ten undergraduates study abroad on trips that last anywhere from a couple of weeks to an entire academic year, and they don’t have to be foreign language or art history majors to garner benefits.
I’ve seen the statistics. Students who’ve studied abroad are twice as likely to land a job within a year of graduation. They have 25% higher starting salaries and a sophisticated (and marketable) global approach to the world. If they can hone or pick up a foreign language while they’re away, this increases job prospects further and makes them international citizens, able to transition more easily between cultures in our shrinking world.
A semester in Italy sounded glamorous and exotic. She packed and repacked, trying to meet the luggage requirements (how can you fit three months’ worth of clothes, snacks and toiletries in one 50 pound bag?), and finally we waved goodbye at the airport. If you haven’t yet had a child travel far and away, here’s a glimpse into what it’s like.
- At least once before they leave, you will suggest an evening in for a movie night. This is a good time to watch Taken, and to rewind and give in-depth and animated analysis of the part where the naive American girls give out personal information to a perfect stranger at the airport. Point out that while you don’t personally know Liam Neeson, you do have his speech memorized and are completely willing to make good on his threat. While it probably won’t, things can happen (Paris, Brussels, Nice), so make sure everyone has emergency numbers, passport copies in multiple locations, and international medical coverage.
2. Staying in one place while abroad is not enough for millennials with tiny attention spans. Hopping a train or cheap flight to a neighboring country is common, usually fairly cost-effective, and an easy way to make the most of an extended study abroad trip. Traveling in small groups works well and offers more security. With any more than six opinions and preferences, more time is spent trying to herd cats than actually see a new city. Whoever came up with the name “hostel” for cheap student lodging is just spiteful. Why pick something that to English ears sounds patently unfriendly and scary? Might I suggest changing it to cubby?
3. You will be amazed at the child who consistently couldn’t manage to make curfew. Suddenly he transforms into a person able to juggle international train schedules, Google maps, and changing time zones to be certain he makes it to Bono’s concert in Berlin or a street carnivale in Spain.
4. Aren’t they supposed to be taking classes? Yes, there is classroom time, but much of the education is outside a textbook. The field trips, cross cultural experiences, and interactions with each other and local people are where real learning occurs. Immersed in a different language, the brain actually creates neural pathways to adjust. Having to live in another culture’s rhythms and pace teaches them to let down their social boundaries and stretches them to see others differently. Often, they come home with friends across the map.
5. Study abroad is a life-long lesson in managing expectations. The trip that seems so glamorous on this side of the ocean won’t always live up to the visions in their head. They won’t love every teacher, meal, museum, or travel companion. It won’t be sunny and 80 degrees every day. Public transportation frequently goes on strike. Outside American culture, the rest of the world operates on a more flexible time table. The word of the day is flexibility. A tall order for some, this is a chance to embrace the unexpected, learn a different flow and become more tolerant, agreeable, and open to change.
6. It will cost approximately the GNP of a small country to Fed Ex forgotten or emergency items to your student abroad, with no guarantee they will arrive. Double check the packing list. Pre-fill medications and have back-up credit cards. If they’re traveling across borders while abroad, be mindful of different regulations for what’s allowed in carry-on’s or backpacks.
7. Technology can be friend or foe. Shop around for international data plans, and be sure to get something so your student is reachable without WiFi in case of emergency. FaceTime or Skype is wonderful when you just need to put eyes on them. It might take the whole semester, but eventually they will remember that the time difference means that while they may be riding elephants in the Thailand afternoon, you are in a deep, sound sleep in the wee hours. Or at least you were.
8. You aren’t going to want to know everything before it happens. You should’ve already adjusted to this truth of college life, but sometimes it’s better not to know until afterwards. My friend’s daughter bungee jumped off a 440 foot platform in New Zealand while studying abroad, and to this day her mother cannot watch the video. It’s the age of Vimeo and GoPro, and your millennial is going to want some choice post-able footage of their time away. Squeeze your eyes shut, stick your fingers in your ears and loudly chant: LALALALALA.
9. They’ll learn a measure of independence. While you may be footing at least some of the bill, they’re having to manage logistics, relationships, and emotions from far away. They have likely done this already just in their regular university situation, but being thousands of miles overseas forces the issue somewhat. They learn to work it out, tough it out, or cry it out on their own. They realize they are capable.
10. The student you dropped off at the airport likely will not be the same one who greets you several months later. He will seem wholly different somehow in a way you cannot at first pinpoint. She will be morphed by confidence and distance, transformed by her experiences, more worldly and seasoned person. You will burst with pride at his accomplishments and feel his joy as he describes moments with breathless excitement. Except the part about paragliding over the Alps. Then you will clutch your chest and demand to know what she was thinking.
A final note: once they arrive safely at home, don’t forget to Tweet Liam Neeson and tell him you will no longer have him on speed dial.