What to Expect When Your Student Studies Abroad

I’ve had so many of you reach out to me wanting more information about studying abroad after reading the last guest post by our daughter Brooke. So I asked (okay, I begged) her to share a little more information with you–the parents–in mind. Here she is again with a student’s perspective on the study abroad experience.

What to Expect When Your Student Studies Abroad    A Guest Post by Brooke Radi

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Pre-Departure

I think it’s pretty safe to say that students who choose to study abroad are excited about it. If they aren’t, it’s probably time to re-evaluate. That being said, there will probably be something that makes your student question whether or not they should even be going in the first place. You as a parent have the most important job in all of this: GET YOUR CHILD ON THAT PLANE. After that, they’ll thrive and it will be great.

As a parent, you would not have supported them thus far if you knew in your heart they weren’t ready, so listen to their concerns and help them find ways to deal with them. They’re probably going to be nervous. They’re probably going to be scared. They’re beginning a new chapter of their lives so this is perfectly normal. They essentially have to start over in a new country. This is not the time to tell your student how they should be feeling. Focus on what you can do to love and distract them from the pre-departure jitters. Help them pack, make their favorite foods, help them narrow down their weekend trip list. By planning with them, you’re showing them that you support them and that you know they’re going to be successful. And you’re not just doing that because you’re their mom. They’re ready.

Expat Living

Don’t freak out if you don’t hear from your student nearly as often as you would when they went to college domestically. This is normal. Mom and I definitely talk at least once every few days when I’m at school stateside, but we were lucky if we were able to connect even once a week for fifteen minutes or so. This got even harder when work schedules conflicted with sleep schedules and travel plans conflicted with open weekends.

Assimilating to a new culture can be really hard. I had to re-learn things that I was used to doing every day at home. For example: when I had to go to the grocery store at home, I would get in my car, drive to the grocery store, buy the three things I needed in brands that I knew, checked out and drove home. When I was living in Prague and I needed groceries, I learned that I had to take my reusable shopping bag, ride a metro train and a tram to the market, make game time decisions about what I thought I was buying, check out, bag my groceries in a reusable bag, and ride the confusing transportation back to my apartment. I’d get home, only to discover that I bought onion cottage cheese instead of plain yogurt. It took about six weeks to be able to confidently grocery shop. Encourage your student to keep trying, especially if they are frustrated.

If Disaster Strikes

In today’s social and political environment, talk with your student about what to do if disaster strikes. I was abroad when the Brussels attacks happened in 2016 (in fact, my friend and I were in the city only a few weeks before), and it was disorienting and scary. Have a plan for contacting you, but remember: if your student is in the city where the event is happening, they may have a hard time getting a hold of you, as phone lines are often jammed. Consider opting for a text or a Facebook message (I found that Facebook definitely worked the best when trying to reach the U.S. from Europe). Check in every few hours until the crisis has passed and encourage your child to stay out of the city center until things have calmed down.

Homesickness

Here’s the hard part: when your student is homesick, encourage them to do anything but call home. In my experience, I didn’t get homesick often, but when I did, it was easy to want to hide away in my room and scroll through social media and miss my friends at
home. This has never fixed homesickness and probably never will. If anything, it made me even more homesick and less likely to leave my room. If your student suddenly reaches out to you more than they normally do (You’ll know your “normal” after about a month), encourage them to go run errands, try a new café, go see a play, literally anything they were excited to do before they left. This will effectively get them out of their rooms and into the real world where they will have to focus on other things. Works almost every time.

Re-Integration

There’s no way around it: reintegration to American life is hard. I wish there was some magical formula that would make it easier than it was, but between the jet lag, the faster pace of American life and over-stimulus, students can be exhausted for the first few days or even weeks. If your student is moving home for a few weeks before going back to school, as many students do, please let them set the pace for their first few days home.IMG_6123

For example, when I was abroad, I had a hard time speaking Czech, so I became used to not being able to understand what people were saying around me if it wasn’t important. If I heard people speaking English, I’d get really excited and shamelessly eavesdrop because it was so good to understand without having to force my brain to work so hard. Fast forward a few months later, and imagine how overwhelming a trip to Target would be if you were used to doing your shopping in an environment where you couldn’t read, speak or understand the language fluently. It was exhausting to try to sort out what was important to listen to and read and what wasn’t. Many of my friends from that semester said the same thing and we relied heavily on one another for the first few weeks home because it was hard to explain to other people. Be mindful of this before scheduling welcome home parties, sporting events, or other things. It will likely take your student some time to get used to it again.

On a similar note, ask your student a lot of questions—literally anything you are curious about—but remember: it’s not abnormal for those answers to change from day-to-day because your student is still processing their own experience. It takes time. Don’t expect them to unpack their entire study abroad experience as fast as their suitcase. To hear their stories and experiences will be worth the wait.

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If you want to follow more of Brooke’s expat adventures, you can follow her at giveagirlasuitcase.com.

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