Today we are used to the wonderful convenience of 24/7 instant communications available through cell phones, email, instant messaging and Skype. While these forms of communication are invaluable especially in emergency situations, they can have an unfortunate effect on students’ ability to become fully immersed in a foreign culture.
It’s important to talk with your student about how and how often you will communicate with each other while he is abroad so that you will not worry, and he will not be overly focused on matters at home. We encourage students to touch base with their parents as soon as possible after they have arrived in their new location to assure them that they have safely arrived and are settled in. However, it may take your student up to 48 hours to gain internet or phone access.
After that, it’s best to maintain regular, but not overly frequent communication with them, and to find ways to use your communications to support and encourage their immersion into the culture rather than distracting them from it. It’s not a bad idea to have a pre-arranged system for getting in touch with each other in the case of a national or international emergency or communications breakdown. For example, designate relatives or close family friends to call in the U.S. and, if possible, in the part of the world where he is staying in the event that you have trouble contacting each other.
Overuse of communication with family and friends at home is one major way of undermining the intercultural experience your student is seeking to gain in studying abroad. If your student is busy and fully engaged in the study abroad experience, he will have less time to spend emailing or calling you and his friends back home. This is a positive thing and should be viewed as such by you. Encourage your student to communicate when they can, and to tell you about all the new sights they are seeing and things they are learning. This will help them to make the most of their experience abroad.
Almost everyone who participates in a study abroad program (or who travels abroad in any other context for that matter) is almost certain to experience culture shock at certain moments in the process. Culture Shock is defined as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an a lend culture or environment without adequate preparation.” Even with adequate preparation, experiencing culture shock intermittently throughout the period of study abroad (especially in the beginning) is a normal part of the experience.In fact, unpleasant and disorienting though the experience may be at times, culture shock presents students with some of the nest opportunities they will have for exactly the kind of intercultural learning and personal growth that are the best and most lasting benefits of study abroad.
Identifying Culture Shock
Culture shock is rarely identified as such by the student who is experiencing it: he is much more likely to perceive the problem as something wrong with the country he is, the program he is participating in, the teachers at his host institution, his program advisors, his roommates, the food, the “peculiar/disgusting/annoying” habits of the local population, and so on.
Culture shock can be especially intense in situations where the student is dealing with a foreign language in addition to all the other cultural differences. He may have the irrational feeling that he wishes he never had to hear another word of the language he went there to learn! Listen sympathetically, and let him know that he is not alone in feeling this way at least occasionally. Many times, a good night’s sleep, or simply a more satisfactory day will make a world of difference.
Your student may express the feeling that he made a big mistake in deciding to study abroad. Or he may express regret at leaving behind loved ones, or the opportunities he passed up to study abroad. In fact, very often what the student is experiencing when he describes these problems and his unhappiness in the new environment. is the discomfort and disorientation that accompanies living in a place that has different values, expectations, standards and practices than those that exist at home– in short, many of the cultural differences that students going abroad are seeking to explore.
How should parents respond to a students’ complaints while he is abroad? Of course there is no answer that can apply to all situations in which parents are in the worrisome position of receiving unhappy reports from their students who are abroad. The following tips may help in sorting out the normal ups and downs in the process of cultural adjustment from a situation that is more serious and should be referred to on-site support staff.
Wait and See
Due to the instant nature of modern communication, parents of students abroad are much more likely to hear about what’s going wrong than what’s going right. Avoid the temptation to immediately step into your student’s problem-solving process. Instead, urge your student to be the one to find a solution to the problem, and to consult with the on-site directory for advice and assistance if necessary. Do follow up in a day or two and ask wether the issue was resolved. (This is one good reason for avoiding 24/7 communication in the first place). May routine problems will have resolved themselves, or students will have found a solution on their own, within 24 hours.
Be responsive and sympathetic to your student’s remarks without becoming overly involved in the details. Try not to instantly leap to negative conclusions, express regret that the student chose to study abroad, or otherwise emphasize the difficult aspects of this process.
Remind Them of Their Goals
Remind your student that he went abroad to experience something different: and that sometimes “different” is uncomfortable. Part of what your student is there for is to learn to deal with a new and different place on his own. Let him have a successful experience and the growth in confidence that can come from such success.
“I Never Want to Come Home Again”
If your daughter begins to talk about wanting to spend more time where she is studying, rather than dismiss it as idle talk or fantasy, or become worried about if and when you will ever see her again,, appreciate the fact that she is thoroughly engaged in the experience and enjoying it. Encourage her to look into what additional study, work or internship possibilities are available while she’s still there. While much information is now available on the internet, there is no substitute for on the ground research and face-to-face interaction. It would be better for her to look into these plans while she’s there and learn how best to prepare for them, or realize they’re not such a good idea after all, than to find out later the hard way.
Many students go through a period of thinking they want to stay in the study abroad location or return to it. Most of them don’t follow through, at least not while they’re still in school. But for those who do, additional study or work abroad can be a very positive outcome of an international experience, and good preparation for a future career. Don’t nip her plans in the bud: encourage her to find out where they may lead. Wether her plans come to fruition or not, she’s learning how to maximize her possibilities. This is a good thing!
“I Want to Come Home Right Now”
When those “I Hate X-country” days hit (and they will) remind her that something different was what she signed up for when she decided to study abroad. Urge her to exercise patience and to keep her sense of humor and perspective.
Here are a few things students abroad should not expect:
- Every day will be a good day
Is every day at home a good day? Of course not. Why should it be different in a foreign country where your student doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t understand many of the most basic customs, doesn’t know how to complete the simplest errands, and has to make to make all new friends? Tell her to remember that sometimes volatile ups and downs are a natural and normal fact of life, especially on study abroad, and especially in the beginning. Urge her to hang in there and get the most of everyday until she is home.
- Accommodations/food/academic expectations will be similar what to is available on the home campus
Some students are shocked to find out just how different life in another country can be. They me be distressed when they find that certain comforts and facilities- television in every room, and ubiquitous cheap or free computer and internet access etc–are less available than what they are accustomed to. They may find themselves in a place where people find the notion of vegetarianism (especially veganism) to be puzzling to say the least. Some vegetarians may want to take a hiatus while they are abroad, for reasons of practicality and health, as well as the desire to fully experience the host culture.
Students, especially females, may be appalled at the sexist attitude they encounter or aggressive and unwelcome attention in the streets. Students may be disoriented to find that professors in foreign universities expect much more of them and are far less available to them than professors at home. All of these things may be part of the reality of life abroad: they may also be part of the reason your student will come to appreciate life in the US more when she has returned. Urge her not to be constantly comparing conditions in the host country to life at home, and judging the host culture as lacking. There are benefits and drawbacks to nearly every difference she will experience: encourage her to make the most of the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.
Only Socializing with Other Americans
Some very short programs may offer very little possibility for students to have meaningful interactions with foreign students. If that’s the case, there’s probably not much to be done, although in these circumstances, occasionally separating from the group (during the day, in a safe area) for some alone time in a cafe, museum, or park is a good idea, and a way for students to at least be able to observe the foreign culture. Encourage your student to remember that she should make the most of the foreign experience, without minimizing the importance of friendships she may be developing with other American students, or dismissing the importance of her moving about with the group if that is what makes her feel more comfortable and safe.
Students who are away for a longer time will quite naturally have more opportunity to get to know foreign students. This is obviously a good thing, but it’s also important for students to take cultural differences into account and exercise even more caution in planning social activities with people they don’t know very well in a foreign country.
Encouraging your student to be cautious and prudent without encouraging prejudice or undue fear on the one hand, or making her think you are overly protective on the other, can be a delicate matter. But remember that just as when she is at home, rather than a lecture, she needs the benefit of your advice, your greater life experience, and your perspective. Recognize that she probably knows more about the specifics of the situation she’s in than you do, but don’t be too hesitant to share your concerns and wisdom with her either. She still needs your advice!
Study abroad is an excellent way for students to gain experience managing their own finances. That being said, knowing if and how you can send your student money while they’re away will give everyone peace of mind. Start with your bank. Research any partner institutions they may have abroad, and have your student use those ATMs to save on transaction fees. For example, Bank of America is partnered with some Chinese banks, so students can use those accounts with ease. This information is generally available on a bank’s website or through their customer service hotline. If you find that your student can use his existing account abroad, be sure to call the bank and have them make a note on his account regarding the location and date of his travel. Alerting the bank ahead of time will help prevent his account from being frozen when transactions from the other side of the world show up!
Another option for your student if they are traveling for a semester or more may be for them to open a bank account locally. Ask the host institution’s coordinator about where students bank, or have your student ask their study abroad advisor.
Taken from What Parents Need to Know! Before, During and After Education Abroad, Janet Hulstrand, courtesy of NAFSA