Supporting Your Student
Before your student leaves, discuss plans for communicating with each other while he or she is abroad.
- Plan when and how your student will contact you after arriving in the host country.
- After the initial contact, set up some kind of schedule for when you will talk, text or otherwise keep in touch. You should plan on being flexible due to class schedules, traveling, time zone differences, and other cultural events in which they participate.
- Have a system in place for getting in touch in case of an emergency. Designate relatives or close family friends to call in the U.S., and if possible in their part of the world, in the event that you have difficulty contacting each other.
Remember that the more time students spend communicating with family and friends at home, the less time they spend integrating themselves into the local culture, one of the main experiences your student may be seeking to gain by studying abroad. If busy and fully engaged in the study abroad experience, they will have less time to spend emailing or calling you. This is a positive thing and should be viewed as such. Encourage your student to communicate when they can, and to tell you about the things they are learning and doing. This will help him or her make the most of their experience, while still including you.
Ways to Communicate
- Various Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers, video chat software applications, instant messaging, and phone and text messaging apps offer free or inexpensive ways to keep in touch.
- Cell phones, often on prepaid plans, are also popular in some countries. Phones can be purchased abroad or sometimes rented from the program provider. Most mobile phones work using a SIM card, on which your student can purchase minutes. Minutes will be deducted from the account for outgoing calls (incoming calls are often free) and text messages. Students can “top up” their account at any time to add more minutes. Rates vary by provider.
- International calling cards may also be an option.
Culture Shock and Homesickness
- Almost anyone who travels, works, or studies abroad will experience culture shock to some degree. This is not only a normal part of the experience, but may actually present your student with some of the best opportunities for intercultural learning and personal growth. Culture shock is rarely identified as such by the person experiencing it. Rather, your student may feel that there is a problem with the host country, the program, or the local population. This may be true even if they have been versed in the “symptoms.”
- Remember, you are much more likely to hear the negatives than the positives, as students are more likely to contact in times of frustration. When this happens, it is important to remind your student that while differences can be uncomfortable, they can also contribute to a great experience. Avoid getting overly involved. Encourage them to stay positive and to work things out on their own, while still letting them know that you are there to listen to and support them.
- If your student calls home, telling you that he or she wishes to come home and that they made a mistake by going abroad, the best way to handle this is to be patient. Often, the student is just experiencing the discomfort that comes with living in a new place that has different values, expectations, standards, and practices than those at home. Dealing with this adjustment without his or her usual support network makes this more difficult, but certainly not impossible. Encourage them to hang in there and make the most of everyday until they come home. In serious cases, your student should contact the on-site staff or their study abroad adviser at NU.
- For more information about culture shock see Adjusting to Life in a Foreign Culture.
- Visiting your student abroad can be a wonderful experience for everyone involved. It is important; however, that your visit is well timed. For example, visiting at the beginning of the program is generally a bad idea as this is an important time for your student to transition to life abroad on their own. Therefore, joining your student after the completion of their program may be the best option, since your son or daughter will be able to show you around, impress you with their new foreign language skills, and enjoy your company.
- It is very important that your student checks with their program provider to ensure that visitation is allowed, as some providers prohibit visitation during the actual program. Similarly, programs may allow visitation, but only at certain times (e.g. scheduled holiday breaks, or post-completion). Moreover, do not expect that you will be allowed to stay with your student if you visit during their program. In many cases, overnight visitors are strictly prohibited.
- Don’t feel badly if you are unable to visit! Your student will still be able to share the experience with you through email, pictures, and souvenirs when they return. Plus, they may like having the experience all to themselves. Just remember to leave plenty of time for sharing once they get back home.
Re-Entry/Reverse Culture Shock
- Reverse culture shock is the difficulty some students may have readjusting to their lives at home, including resuming relationships with friends and family and getting back into the routine of school. Symptoms can be very similar to the initial culture shock that students experience when they first go abroad.
- You can help your student through this period by listening, showing genuine interest in their experiences, and encouraging them to stay in contact with the friends they made abroad. Make sure to look at their photos and listen to their stories. Similarly, urge them to attend the returnee events provided by the Study Abroad Office at Northwestern, as a way to process their experience once they return.
- Be prepared to expect change, albeit a positive change, once your son or daughter returns. You should also acknowledge the changes your student has gone through by letting them know that you can see how much they have matured.
- See these resources for dealing with reverse culture shock and finding re-entry strategies.