Supporting Your Student While Abroad
One of the best things you can do to support your student is to let them handle the program details. In most cases, IAP needs to deal with your student directly. Please allow students to take on this responsibility themselves, as it can be a valuable chance to learn and grow. Ask your student to share the information they receive from IAP with you. If you have a question, chances are that your student will have the answer.
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. There is a great deal of information available online through news sites as well as through digital versions of print media. 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. Keep in mind that US-centric news sources sometimes do not portray international events completely or accurately, so it can be helpful to examine a variety of sources. BBC News offers in-depth news coverage that is categorized by continent and region.
General information about your student's host country and the surrounding area can be found with 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. IAP encourages you to talk with your student and read about your student's host country prior to 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.
One way to get a more complete picture of your student’s experience, and help reduce their feelings of homesickness, is to keep communication open.
Connecting across continents and time zones can be tricky, and you may be used to frequent or even daily contact with your student here in the U.S. Before your student goes abroad, it’s a good idea to talk about how you will communicate, as well as how often. It’s important to stay in touch, but not to the extent that it interferes with the experience abroad. Students may need to separate themselves a bit from their home support networks as they build a local one. Be prepared for less frequent communication. Your student is experiencing, exploring, and seeking an opportunity for cultural immersion. Encourage an appropriate balance of communication so that your student can stay in touch with home, but be in touch with the host culture as well.
There are a lot of resources (many of them free) to help you both stay connected. The best method will depend on you and your student, and the country where he or she will be studying.
Communication should be easy if you and your student have access to email. At the same time, understand that access to email overseas is not always as readily available as it is in the U.S.
If your student will have a phone overseas and you think you will be using the phone to communicate, contact your phone provider. 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 and texts 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. Other similar messenger software to explore is Google Hangouts and WhatsApp.
Don't underestimate the power of the handwritten note. If your student is able to receive mail at their location, a handwritten note is a small reminder of home they can read and reread in quiet moments.
Adapting to a different culture can be exciting, frustrating, and challenging. No two students adapt at the same pace or in the same manner; however, there are several phases of cultural adaptation that people living in another culture for an extended period of time experience.
(Adapted from Robert L. Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, chapter on "Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living.")
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 better understand their experience.
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.
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.
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 himself 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.
Reverse Culture Shock
Students often go through a phase of "reverse" or "re-entry" culture shock when they return from studying abroad. Sometimes this phase can be more challenging than what was initially experienced abroad. Students 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. For your student, returning to their home culture probably feels much like when they arrived to their host country. Home might feel foreign, or no longer feel familiar and natural. The stages of culture shock experienced abroad can repeat coming home, in reverse culture shock.
If you want to visit your student abroad, you may want to consider arranging your visit to coincide with academic breaks or after the program has ended. Then your student does not have to make the difficult choice between academic work and spending time with you. Many families find visiting or learning about the study abroad location a valuable way to feel more in touch with the experience of their student.