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Study Abroad Advisor

Parents and Study Abroad

Family Involvement in Advising Benefits Everyone

I began my position as study abroad coordinator somewhat unprepared for the demands of the job, but I leapt into it with gusto. One of my first projects was organizing a study abroad fair for all our exchange and consortial programs. I thought this was a wonderful and unique idea at the time. From that first fair, our exchange applications grew tenfold and I was faced with what I now call predeparture orientations (then they were just called “What do I do now?”).

One applicant was interested in our exchange with a university in Kenya, and as a part of his predeparture program I brought his family to campus. I felt this program was probably in need of the most attention. My intuition served me well: months later, all contact with the student and with the university was lost, and, without our knowledge, the student began a personal odyssey across the continent.

Because I had involved his parents from day one and because they went away from our meetings with the confidence that our university was preparing him in the best way possible, this experience became a truly enlightening one for the student, his parents, and our office. I was now convinced that parents needed to be involved.

Judging from NAFSA and other meetings that I have attended, this is not a universal opinion. Many program directors feel that if parents are involved the responsibility of the student is lessened and that students need to control all aspects of the program because it is their own grownup, and sometimes difficult, experience.

I agree entirely, but I have found that family involvement has not lessened the student’s responsibility; rather, it has focused it. And I now have the parents as supporters, not antagonists.

Skeptics have told me that involving families in orientation will only increase the number of phone calls or emails from parents. Quite the opposite has happened here. Not only do I receive fewer calls, those who do call are better prepared to understand the answers to their questions.

The tedious details of predeparture, the program itself, or the return to campus are contained in one booklet and covered at one meeting. When parents call, they generally begin, “Well, I did what you suggested in the booklet, but. . . .” My conversations with parents have become more constructive and complete, as well as fewer.

How to Include Families

Here are a few ways that our school brought its student families into the picture and how it worked for us. This is by no means a complete list, and I welcome suggestions from all of you.

1. Buy a copy of William Hoffa’s Study Abroad: A Parent's Guide. It can be found on the publications page of the NAFSA website at www.nafsa.org. I recommend this very good one-volume guide in my orientation workshops and steal ideas from it for my own publications.

2. Create a local family guide and provide it to each family after the student has officially applied for a program. Sections on safety and health should include a list of insurers; consular and medical information; CDC, State Department hotline, and other resource information. Include sections on each program describing where students live, eat, and study. Provide sections on costs and billing, on credit approval, and on travel opportunities while there. Provide sections on packing, money issues and, of course, culture and reentry shock. Don’t forget emergency procedures and contacts. Create a guide that you, as a parent, would appreciate.

3. Put all of this on your website and refer to the website in your orientation session and in your printed guide. The information on the web is much easier to update and refine.

4. Create discussion lists at your university, or elsewhere on the Internet, for your program. These listservs have been invaluable for our participants. They can converse easily with each other during preparations, and their families can feel a part of the process. When the students are overseas, the listserv adds to the family’s enjoyment because they can continue to observe what the group is doing without interfering in the process. Programs with directors abroad can keep in constant contact with all parties involved.

5. Conduct campus orientation programs for parents. We cover every program in one night and combine some programs where there are few participants. A parent whose child is going to Japan is just as eager to meet a parent whose child is going to Costa Rica. I limit these meetings to about two hours, include information from a standard agenda, and open it up to questions. By having these in the evening, often on Fridays, parents from several hours away attend. It is universally greeted as a wonderful event. It relieves anxiety, provides useful information, allows parents to meet other parents, and it seriously lessens the strain on our office.

6. Bring former student participants and their family members and faculty members who work with individual programs to these family orientations. Show them that the university cares about the quality of the program and is concerned for their child.

7. Be mindful that not all parents can come to the meeting, so the printed guide needs to stand on its own. The orientation session is a time to focus on details and answer questions raised by the printed guide or website. The discussion list then becomes yet another way I can reiterate issues addressed in the meeting and a way for parents to talk more with each other. The three venues support but do not supplant each other.

A Learning Experience for All

We have conducted family orientations now for seven years. Each year I add things to the discussion, and each year I revise the printed guide. The sessions have taught me many things, mostly because parents bring needs to the meetings and to the listserv that should be addressed.

All of you who work with study abroad know that students often don’t hear everything in predeparture orientations, nor do they always pay attention at on-site orientations. Their excitement clouds their vision and their hearing. Their youth and inexperience limits their understanding. They simply don’t think of all the possibilities. Their parents, for the most part, do. Involving parents not only helps them and their children but helps you perform better as an adviser.

I welcome suggestions and questions from any of you who are planning this kind of program. Our university has seven active direct exchanges and works with three consortial groups. We send about 2 percent of our students abroad each year to over 30 program sites. Families are included in all exchange program orientations and are invited to the consortial program orientations on this campus.

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