Our daughter returned from Berlin a month ago after spending a semester abroad studying and completing an internship. During the months she was there, I knew I needed to write about this experience. Even as a family who has lived abroad for many years, it was a learning experience for everyone.
Almost all universities promote a study abroad experience. Some are hosted by the university; others and the vast majority are 3rd party companies who specialize in handling all of the details that go into making the magic happen. Our daughter went through The Council on International Educational Exchange, CIEE, a company endorsed by her university. Here are 10 things we felt should be shared.
1. I’m Not Going to Sugarcoat It, It’s Expensive
Every program is different but there’s a reason not everyone gets the opportunity to study abroad, which I think is unfortunate. There are many grants/scholarships that exist through the university but also the organization you select. Make sure you get a detailed list of expenses, then do your research. For example, the company quoted $850 for a plane ticket but that was from the east coast. We paid almost $1900 and that was with extensive shopping/comparing and trying to be creative in how we got her to Europe. In addition, most programs do not include food. The amount quoted was double what was expected, so plan accordingly.
2. Make Sure Every Single Credit Is Accepted Towards Your Degree Plan
This seems obvious, but if you are going to invest in studying abroad, you want it to count. To do this, it took a great deal of time to get confirmation from the study abroad company and the professors at the university. You would believe that this would be agreed upon before engaging in a partnership, but that isn’t always the case. Get it in writing.
3. Don’t Expect Because You’ve Paid for This Experience, Your Child Will Get an “A”
Academics are different in each country. Grading is different in each country. Learning philosophies are different in each country. In Germany, professors made the comment, American students “expect” to get an A, but be prepared, he wasn’t “giving” them. Like any university, you must know the expectation and work to meet the demands. If your student thinks they will study abroad and not “study,” they shouldn’t go. If they plan to miss class to travel, they shouldn’t go. There’s a reason “study” is in the title.
4. Try to Engage in an Internship
Many, many young adults study aboard but few engage in an internship. This sets you apart, and honestly, there’s nothing better than working in a country and in their business setting. You gain an appreciation of the differences in work styles, ethics, and practices. It’s truly invaluable. I will tell you for my daughter, THIS was the icing on the cake. It was without a doubt the best part of her studying abroad. She made an impact, learned that little direction was given for tasks, and that she so had to “figure it out.” She did all of this with the firm German style of harsh criticism and with sincere praise when it was finally given. She quickly realized our work settings are full of insincere praise when it wasn’t deserved. She found that her strong work ethic wasn’t necessarily respected because they “work to live” which was an invaluable experience. In addition, she worked in a multicultural work environment only adding to her experiences. Many study abroad opportunities allow for this, so seriously consider it.
5. Traveling…But Not as An American
One of my very favorite books is Traveling as a Political Act by Rick Steves. In some ways, I hate the word “Political” is in the title because it could turn people off. But the premise is to be cognitive of how you come across, as an American, in other countries. A few of the big pain points we display as Americans include being loud and being rude. My friend who is a good southern girl came to visit me in Europe. She tells the story often. She gets off the plane, comes flying through the luggage collection doors, waving her hand to me saying in the loudest voice “HEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!” This would have been normal in other situations, but she instantly realized it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It killed her to not talk to every person we sat next to at a restaurant where the tables were literally elbow links away and you had to pretend you didn’t hear/see the other diners.
Many students who study abroad don’t realize that you are representing American in all of its glory. People will want to talk about our President, whether it’s now or was 8 years ago. We had a man in Greece become belligerent when he realized we were Americans. We sat and listened to his views and thanked him for his openness and honesty. We couldn’t change his mind. But we could interact with him with grace and hopefully leaving at least one positive impression about America with him.
When traveling to Tunisia, we had the most incredible experience with the people who lived and worked in this country. Having such a great interaction with them left us with the most positive memories of their culture. This should be the goal of every student, or person, who travels. You are representing the United States of America so don’t discount the importance of your interactions or behavior.
6. Culture Shock Is Real
Traveling abroad, without your parents or a safety net, seems exciting. Young adults can’t wait to engage in another culture. But the strongest of individuals find they are miserable, which normally comes after the first week, when all the newness has worn off. I get it. I’ve been there. It’s hard. A few students wanted to go home. Don’t go home! There were young adults who become so miserable, they hated being there. Nothing is easy. Nothing is familiar. Nothing is fun anymore, but you must push through. This is normally when people head to McDonald’s. Yes, I’m not kidding, they do. But do find a place that is comfortable until you get your feet under you. Acknowledge you’re struggling because I can promise you, others are too. When you are away for more than a couple of weeks, the vacation is over, and you settle into living like a local. I promise you will be a different person if you hang on and learn to laugh at the things that go wrong.
7. Interact with the Locals, NOT Just Americans
Years ago, when we lived in Europe, we traveled to Seville, Spain for a long weekend. We sat next to a group of American girls who were studying abroad. They sat at a table, speaking English. We struck up a conversation and learned they all were living with host families. What we also learned is with the wonderful world of electronics and iPhones, they were sticking together and not engaging in the “living abroad.” They hadn’t met any Spaniards. They were talking to family members daily, and although they were living across the ocean, they were still living as if they were home, hanging with other Americans. If you are going to be abroad…be abroad. This is a once in a lifetime experience so let loose of the sanctuary you have and explore.
8. Students: Unfortunately, No One Will Care About Your Experiences When You Get Home (Except Mom & Dad)
This is a very hard pill to swallow. You’ve had all these life-changing experiences and a million stories to tell. You have traveled like you will never be this way again and you come home to share, and no one truly cares. The exception is people who have traveled also. You are now in a group of individuals who are forever changed and view the world through a completely different lens. You didn’t travel for others. You traveled for yourself. But the great thing is, when you meet that person who “gets” what you are talking about, the bond is one you will forever share.
9. Parents: Your Young Adult Will NOT Be the Same Person When They Come Home
I think this is very important to talk about but it can scare parents when considering to allow their children to study abroad. Many parents who support this experience have been abroad or have studied as well. But for the parents who have never experienced this opportunity, it’s critical you know that you are changing their lives forever. I’m not being dramatic, but there is something so powerful about leaving home to explore. Even with our daughter who lived and grew up on the economy in Europe as a young girl, she came home changed. Honestly, we were afraid she would not come home at all, and I’m not joking. The Wanderlust is real. The more you learn to gain confidence in another culture, try new things, embrace different people, and learn to love being self-reliant, you are forever changed. And for parents, you’ve accomplished what you hoped the investment would achieve; you’ve created a global citizen.
10. Finally, Students….Thank Your Parents!