How this book made an impact in my life, especially as a mother: Almost three years ago, my husband and I sent out our own son abroad, as an 18-year-old, to spend six months as an exchange student in Ghana. I knew what to expect, for the most part. I’ve worked for over a decade for one of the largest international cultural exchange programs operating in this country, advising teenagers living in the U.S. for a semester or year. Most people, however, don’t have that experience, and I realized that this book—as short as it is, just 60 pages—sums up what mothers (and fathers) should know before their child goes on a study abroad program. It’s important to have parental support and understanding. It’s important to think about finances. It’s important to think about how you will stay in touch. And last (but not least), as Berdan notes, “One of the best gifts we can give our children is to help them develop a global mindset so that they will be best positioned for success in our competitive, global marketplace.”
Basic Overview: Parents back home are a key factor in the success of a student’s academic semester or year abroad. Solid parent preparation and understanding of the nature of an international cultural exchange and study abroad generally are key to a student’s ability to adapt and develop a healthy relationship with his or her host family and community.
Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, Allan Goodman, and William Gertz aim to make parent preparation more transparent in A Parent Guide to Study Abroad. The three authors, all well-known international education and study abroad professionals, acknowledge that parent involvement is critical for a student’s success. But as Berdan notes in her introduction, not every parent knows where to begin; and as Goodman notes in his introduction, parents need a plan. So what is that plan? Chapters in the book include: the value of studying abroad, how to find the best program for you, addressing costs and means of paying for a study abroad program, staying safe and healthy, and how to prepare for success while in another country.
There are some nuances, however, that are different from what one would advise a student, because a parent’s perspective differs from that of a student. Two chapters specifically address parents’ actions during and after a study abroad program. These are key areas in which parents’ knowledge and expectations can help make or break a student’s successful integration into a host community, as well as transitioning back home.
Parts I liked best: William Gertz, president and CEO of the American Institute for Foreign Study, compares his own three-month traveling abroad journey many years ago with his daughter’s more recent study abroad experience, focusing on his own perceived needs and well-intentioned actions:
When my daughter went abroad during her junior year, I was excited for her. I wanted her to have “my” experience” (first mistake). But life is different nowadays, and you can’t really unplug. While she was studying in Florence, we spent far too much time talking on Skype and communicating via Facebook. We were always connected; and while this was comforting for us both, it may have hampered the freedom she needed—the freedom of spirit, exploration, and trial and error that I had. Still, she came home a more confident, more accomplished young woman.
Her study abroad program was superbly organized down to every detail, perfect for the millennial generation, complete with ample hand-holding. Days packed with detailed itineraries including learning excursions, volunteering trips, and language courses were quite the contrast to my backpacking, hostel-hopping days of self-discovery. Traveling by air on weekends, she probably had fewer adventures than I had traveling by rail, but I had to remember, this was her experience, not mine.
My strong advice is this: let your children breathe. Don’t call too much, don’t solve all their problems, let them make their own mistakes and find their own path.
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Edited by Aubrey Degn and Sarah Monson.