As someone who was fortunate to go abroad- and have family visit- twice during my college career, I can certainly vouch for the incredible opportunities (and sometimes, challenges) that accompany the convergence of an abroad experience and a family vacation. In today’s Detroit Free Press, there was an excellent article highlighting the dramatic increase in parental involvement in all facets of study abroad. This can range from increased communication with their children and program administrators, to using their child’s time abroad as an excuse to join in on the fun and embark on jet-setting excursions. However, the result of such a well-intended visit can be quite complex, as many feel that the emerging physical and digital presence of parents abroad compromises the student’s ability to achieve independence and assimilate into the local culture.
There is no doubt that as a student abroad, a sudden transformation occurs when your “comfort zone” is literally transported to your new foreign home. No matter how much difficulty you had with the culture clash, the language barrier, or the attempt to navigate a new city, your daily routine is completely alleviated when Mom and Dad stop by. Yet, I would argue that it is those very difficulties that transform to the most fulfilling learning experiences and make study abroad so rewarding. With the right precautions, a family visit can complement, rather than compromise, the study abroad experience.
First of all, one thing that particularly resonated with me from this article is the importance of having family visit during a strategic point in the program. This means either during a school break, or at the end of the program. After the completion of my first study abroad program in France, ending the experience with a family Eurotrip was excellent and provided an amazing opportunity to introduce my family to my host family. Despite the language barrier (literally my mom, my host mom, and I were the only ones who spoke both languages), the unique intricacies of each individual were still communicated and the meal was a once in a lifetime culmination that merged both worlds.
During my semester in Australia, my family visited in two groups (almost back to back), which led to an ironic second “culture shock” of re-acclimating to the people and luxuries of family while still being in the middle of my abroad experience. While my Dad and older brother visited while I was still in classes, we were still able to revolve around important commitments to tour Melbourne and surrounding areas. For the first time in my life, I experienced the “role reversal” that this article portrays. Despite being the youngest of the group, I had earned my rank as the local aficionado who knew every detail and I was honored to share my knowledge of the city and my favorite cultural offerings with family.
A unique thing about our generation is the prominence of “helicopter parents” hovering over their students and living vicariously through their students’ abroad experiences. I learned that some Program Providers have even received applications from parents themselves. The fact that a student would call their parent regarding an issue and not directly contact the program themselves is certainly worrisome. Having a student spend hours on Skype with friends and family from home instead of experiencing the local culture is unfortunate. Though, there is certainly a healthy balance. The thing that I really came to appreciate about my parents is how, during challenging situations, they would provide me with advice without imposing. Rather, they gave me the tools, direction, and confidence to put the pieces together myself, and by the time I returned from my second term abroad I had definitely noticed just how much more independent and resourceful I had become.
One of the major goals of Abroad101 is to provide individualized features for students, administrators, and- as I’m sure you can guess- parents. We feel that parents whose children have recently returned from abroad can serve as invaluable resources to parents whose children are in the research/pre-departure phase. We are confident that such features will allow parents, as well as students, to utilize each other as resources and ultimately create a self-sustained, interactive, and independent community that mirrors the very goals of study abroad itself.