American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation

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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

Table of Contents

Addressing parental concerns by Margaret Riley
Director, Study Abroad, Western Michigan University

First and foremost, parents with concerns about study abroad and how it relates to their child should be referred to: Study Abroad: A Parent's Guide, by William W. Hoffa, published in 1998 by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. This book gives a comprehensive overview of study abroad issues concerning parents, ranging from why students should study abroad to dealing with their arrival back home. Advisors who plan on holding pre-departure meetings with parents may wish to build the cost of this book into their program budget. This book is an excellent resource for the international educator, too.

Some of the topic identifiers listed below correspond closely to the various sections of the Parent's Guide with the understanding that they represent the issues of greatest concern to parents, and, therefore, are issues that should be of concern to you. Other topics have also been highlighted as they actually may be of greater importance than their classification in the Guide might suggest. Outreach to parents may be a consideration you'd like to explore, but currently don't have the human or fiscal resources to address. Nevertheless, being aware of some of these concerns in advance might give you the opportunity to think about how you can tackle them in the future.

1. Justifying study abroad: Until parents have been convinced that study abroad is a worthwhile endeavor, the other items that evolve are irrelevant. Fortunately, with the emerging global marketplace, on occasion it is the parents who are urging their child to go abroad, in order to improve their marketability upon graduation. Nevertheless, some parents need convincing that this is a worthwhile expenditure of limited resources: time, money, and energy. The Guide devotes 24 pages to this topic. Additionally, you'll find developing your own examples locally of successful university, business and community leaders who value the study abroad experience will help you build a more convincing case. Bringing the global landscape to the local level helps make it a topic parents can more readily embrace.

2. Safety and Health Issues: Often the most important concern a parent has is for the safety and health of their child. Significant attention has been addressed to this issue over the last few years. A couple of very unfortunate accidents brought it to the forefront, and a sub-committee of the NAFSA Section on U. S. Students Studying Abroad (SECUSSA) was developed to address widespread concerns. The results of their efforts may be found at: A new national policy on safety and security has been approved by a number of colleges, universities and study abroad organizations and can also be found at this site. Another valuable reference is the web site, which contains information about safety in study abroad and much more.

3. Program costs: Any review of study abroad program materials will provide ample evidence that program costs vary considerably. It often behooves the parent/child to develop a list of items that are the most important considerations regarding program selection. Cost is one, obviously, but so are issues such as location (country, city, school); housing options (host family vs. student housing vs. off-campus housing with host nationals or independent off-campus housing); language requirements, GPA requirements, etc. Develop a chart to assist in this process of "comparison shopping." On one axis you list the variables, and provide space for them to customize with the items they feel are important. Columns on the other axis with space for names of the various programs, with space allowing notations in the columns with information gleaned from the program materials then summarizes how the various programs being considered meet the requirements. While cost is certainly an essential factor, remind them to compare "apples" with "apples." Programs vary considerably in the services provided, and costs that are covered. A program that appears on the surface to be the most expensive may actually be quite cost effective when you begin to list what it covers in comparison to others. Is air fare included? Are excursions part of the program? As essential an item as meals may be included in one program, and not in another, which will obviously seriously impact the actual costs in the end.

4. Credit transferability: For many parents, there is a widespread belief that study abroad will delay their child's graduation. The actual transferability of credit varies considerably between academic institutions, and, indeed, within departments and colleges. This is an issue which must be carefully addressed with the relevant parties: academic advisors, department chairs, general education coordinators, etc. When possible, obtaining pre-approved course equivalencies will help to assuage doubts one might have about such credits. In some instances, it is actually possible for a student to earn more credits in a study abroad program because they are focused on the study aspect rather than working to support themselves, or maintaining the heavy involvement in extra-curricular activities that tends to be expected here in the U.S. Clearly defining how your institution addresses credit transfer will resolve many of the questions parents might have. Developing a list of how specific course requirements have been met abroad will help dispel their fears about delayed graduation.

5. Logistical details: Many parents are interested in obtaining as much information as possible about the program, and specifics of day-to-day living. Often it is impossible for such detailed information to be available. It also detracts from the learning experience of study abroad if each step is so carefully explained or outlined that the student has no opportunity to explore and find answers on their own. While every effort should be made to respond as fully as possible to the questions parents raise, sometimes the distinction between preparing for the learning experience and detracting from the learning experience must be made. Also, don't hesitate to refer parents and students to more appropriate reference sources, especially for detailed cultural information.

6. Privacy Concerns: You may find there is conflict between what the parents wish to know, and what the students want them to know. Beware that there are federal restrictions regarding what may be revealed to parents without permission from the students. Familiarize yourself with your institutional policies regarding this sometimes controversial topic.

7. Pre-Departure Meetings: When possible, gathering parents together prior to departure to address their concerns is advisable. Involving parents of past study abroad students who can speak from their experience provides hesitant parents with the reassurance they sometimes need. Also, inevitably the range of international experiences of parents in the group will vary considerably, and you may find allies who will facilitate the orientation process by sharing their previous experiences within the group. You must also be prepared, however, to deal with those whose experience has been less favorable, and to address the concerns they may raise in a manner that, while legitimizing their experiences, minimizes it in the eyes of the others.

8. Re-Entry: Just as returning students should be involved in debriefing upon their return, parents should be provided with tools to help them facilitate the readjustment they'll be going through when their child returns. Reference articles and questions for reflection should be sent home so parents develop a better understanding of the changes they'll notice in their returning sojourner. For example, a search of the USC Center for Global Education Resources on Study Abroad, using "reentry" as the target word, reveals numerous articles of potential interest to parents. Sharing selected articles with parents will facilitate their involvement in the re-entry process.

9. Evaluation: Time and resources permitting, evaluations from parents may provide you with some of your most candid program assessments. While their son or daughter reflects on the study abroad experience with very personal insights, parents have a more detached view, which may lead to greater objectivity.

10. Remember your target: Don't forget that the study abroad experience is, first and foremost, the student's experience. Often a balancing act ensues that requires the advisor to diplomatically address the concerns of parents while protecting the interests of the student enrolled in a particular program . In today's litigious society, and with academic institutions viewing students and their parents as customers to be serviced, maintaining your balance may seem a high-wire act. Ultimately, however, you must remember your target audience, and fulfill your commitments to them.

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