Supporting Your Student While Abroad
One of the best things you can do as a parent to support your student in her or his international academic program, is to let him or her handle the program details. In most cases, we need to deal with the student directly. Please allow students to take on this responsibility themselves.
Prior to departing for their programs, all students receive an IAP Study Abroad Handbook (with academic, health, and financial information), a site-specific handbook, a consular information sheet for their country, an emergency contact card, and a CISI health insurance policy information and card. All students also attend a mandatory orientation session and complete an online orientation prior to departure. Please ask your student to share this information with you. If you have a question, chances are that your student will have the answer. Copies of the IAP Study Abroad Handbooks are available here.
IAP encourages parents to stay informed about current events in the country and region where their student is studying. Many countries now have a variety of information online, ranging from official government statements and statistics to unofficial web-guides and online newspapers. In addition, many English-language newspapers publish in-depth articles about events in international areas. Consider subscribing to a major newspaper (such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Chicago Sun), a news magazine (such as The Economist or U.S. News and World Report), or another source of in-depth information.
You may want to find out more about the host country. General information about your student's host country and the surrounding area is the State Department's Country Background Notes. The Background Notes provide information in the categories of people, government, history, political conditions, economy, foreign relations, US relations, travel, and business.
You also might consult guidebooks which contain information about cultural practices. We encourage you to read about your student's host country before his or her departure. Gaining more knowledge about the destination will help to answer questions and address your concerns. There are many books on the market which provide basic information for studying and traveling abroad. Other suggestions include:
There are, of course, many other travel guides on various countries and travel topics.
One way to get a more complete picture and help reduce feelings of homesickness is to write to your student regularly, and encourage him or her to do the same. A letter that a student can read and reread in quiet moments is always appreciated. Given the turnaround time for international mail, you might not want to wait until you receive a letter in order to write one, but instead make it a weekly habit. In addition to your own letters to your overseas scholar, urge other family members to write. Cards, newspaper clippings, or pictures are also usually welcome. There is a close correlation between morale abroad and mail from home. Strange as it might seem, our students can be almost as concerned about you as you can be concerned about them! If they do not hear from you, they may worry about what is wrong.
Communication should be easy if you and your student have access to e-mail. At the same time, please understand that access to e-mail overseas is not always as readily available as it is in the U.S., even in parts of Western Europe where you would expect access to be comparable. In addition, daily e-mail contact is not always desirable. Students need to separate themselves a bit from their home support networks as they build a local one, as they immerse themselves in the local culture.
If you think you will be using the phone to communicate, call your long distance company. Many offer special services that allow you to identify one country as a frequently called one, and for a small monthly fee, you can cut the cost of your calls considerably. Another option is to purchase a calling card with reduced rates for the country in which your student is studying.
Skype is a free, downloadable software application that allows users to make live video and voice calls over the internet. Skype users can also add money to their account and can then use the service to call land lines and cell phones internationally at very low rates. If two users both have web-enabled video cameras for their computers, they will be able to chat face to face. For users without a web cam, a microphone is all that’s required for calls to another computer. For additional information and to download the application please visit www.skype.com
(Adapted from Robert L. Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, chapter on "Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living.")
All students, regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living, experience some degree of culture shock. Culture shock is a term used to describe some of these more pronounced reactions to spending an extended period of time in a culture very different from your own. Culture shock can be characterized by periods of frustration, adjustment, and even depression. The worst homesickness often occurs two to three months after students leave home, frequently arriving just in time for the holidays. It is common for students to call or write home during moments of low morale, but not when they are busy and things are going well. Consequently, families often picture a more negative situation than actually exists.
Not everyone will experience culture shock. However
if your student does, it is helpful to be able to recognize
when it occurs so you will understand what is really
happening. The following breakdown of the four stages
of cultural adaptation will help you recognize the process
as it happens with your student.
1. Honeymoon Phase
Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. Your student is in a new country, and everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps they are involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled, getting hosted around the town or city. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. And, at first, your student may even see more of the similarities between the host country and the U.S. than the differences.
Suggestions for support:
Listen to the student's exciting stories and appreciate the unique experiences he or she has the opportunity to enjoy. Remember these good experiences to use when times become more challenging. Some cultures are so different from the United States' that it may be difficult for the student to put it into words. Ask your student specific questions about the country, culture, and people in order to make the experience clear to you.
2. Irritability and Hostility
After the first couple of weeks, the initial excitement might pass and your student may begin to confront the deeper differences in their new location. Maybe he or she will be tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. Maybe he or she will be tired of long commutes whenever going somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than the student originally anticipated. Or perhaps things are less expensive, but not of the quality or variety that is customary at home. The initial enthusiasm has drifted away and the student has entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, the student may just feel like he or she doesn't really belong.
Suggestions for support:
During the first few weeks, it is not uncommon for students to contact home upset about some aspect of the new culture, people, and program. It is important for parents to remember that students may initially focus on what is going wrong in the program, rather than right. Find out exactly what is frustrating your student, but avoid judging the cultural differences. Be supportive of your student and encourage him or her to discuss these issues with the resident director. The on-site staff has dealt with many students in these situations and is well prepared to help your student during the initial adjustment period.
3. Gradual adjustment
Be patient. Almost always, the initial struggles will disappear with time and the student will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. A sense of humor will reappear. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar. The student will be able to function more easily within the culture. When contacting home, the participant will begin sharing the enjoyable experiences with you again.
Suggestions for support:
Listen to your student's stories with interest. Congratulate him or her for understanding the social norms, making local friends, and other such successes. Your student is slowly adapting to new surroundings.
4. Adaptation or Biculturalism
Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. Your student has managed to retain his or her own cultural identity but recognizes the right of other cultures to retain theirs. The participant has a better understanding of him or herself and others, and can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.
There is no one way to experience culture shock. It may be acute or barely noticeable. You may find it returns once after you thought your student had already passed through all the stages. As a parent, you may not even be aware that your student is going through culture shock, or to what extent. Simply be aware that culture shock exists, that it will probably affect your student in one way or another, but that it doesn't last forever. Culture shock can be a very valuable experience, which can leave people with broader perspectives, deeper insight into themselves and a wider tolerance for other people.
Although it may seem like a long way off, we suggest that you start thinking now about your student's return to the United States after the program ends. Students often go through a phase of "reverse" or "re-entry" culture shock when they come back home, sometimes more challenging than what they went through abroad. They expect to go through adjustments in foreign countries, but do not always realize that life has continued on without them at home and there may be changes for which they were not prepared. As with culture shock, one way to alleviate the difficulty of re-entry shock is to keep your student aware of what is going on at home through consistent communication. Students often go through periods of mild depression once they return home because of feelings that no one is interested in what they experienced in their time abroad.
Faced with questions such as "How was your time in xxxx?" a student often can only answer "Great!" before conversation moves on to another subject. Encourage friends and family members to ask more specific questions like "What were the best things about living abroad? The most difficult? What places did you visit? Are people's daily lives the same as in the United States? Do you have any pictures? Etc., etc." Have a party where your student can show off food, customs and souvenirs from his or her travels. Not only will such questions and activities remind students they had a worthwhile experience and help them to readjust, it will help others in your community or family learn more about the world around us.
If you want to visit your son or daughter abroad (and we hope some of you do), it would help if you could arrange your visit to coincide with vacation times or after the program has ended. Then your son or daughter does not have to make the difficult choice between academic work and having fun showing you how competent he or she has become in a new environment. Many families find reading about the study abroad location to be both interesting and a good way to feel more in touch with the experience of their student.