Advice for College Students Studying Abroad, and Their Parents

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As our children grow up, we learn the shifting mix of emotions that accompanies sending them off on their own — to camp, to college, on a variety of adventures. Study abroad for American college students has become more common — it’s about one in 10 college students now — and common in Europe as well, where the European Union operates the Erasmus program, which gives many students the chance to study in other countries.

I’ve had the great good fortune over the past year to interact with American college students studying in Berlin, Florence, Shanghai and Paris, and as a group they are deeply conscious of the privilege and very determined to make it count. I’m writing this, in part, to students who may be going abroad soon, offering a few before-you-go thoughts, but also to their parents, to say, trust them, believe in them — and help them think things through before they go.

I spoke with European clinical psychologists and wellness counselors who work with American students studying abroad, and one started by commenting on the American students’ sense of focus and awareness of their goals in life, which she found generally stronger and more consistent than among people their age in Europe.

At the same time, she said, that can backfire in terms of feeling under pressure. “I see many students under immense pressure,” she said. “People get anxious about a B-plus, not just uncomfortable, but anxious.” Some students, she said, seem to feel, “either I am the best, or I am nothing.”

As all experienced travelers know, while your voyaging may take you to new thoughts and new feelings, you also take yourself with you wherever you go, so the situations that challenged you or worried you at home will still loom in a new setting and a new language.

That psychologist also noted — with a mix of admiration and concern — that among American college students, she encounters the sentiment that “free time is a waste of time.” In America, she said, there must be “a different work-life balance than we have over here.”

If you are a parent of a college student who is getting ready to go abroad, it can be an opportunity to tell your own stories of youthful adventures, or at least, those you are willing to have go public (hitchhiking through Europe together in 1976-77 was the great guarded secret of my own marriage, the absolute don’t-do-as-we-did, and I mention it only because our children have expressed shock and horror that we ever did such a thing).

But you should also honor the modern study-abroad experience, and think with your child about how to get as much out of it as possible — and acknowledge that even for sophisticated and serious students, it can be intense, and sometimes challenging.

Discuss what supports and props your student has relied on for doing well academically, managing socially and generally staying healthy and happy in the first years of college. Many of the same stresses — and many of the same supports — will be there in a study-abroad setting, and it’s very much worth talking this through beforehand.

Any student with a medical problem, of course, should bring along relevant records, should ask about the availability of specialists if they’re needed, and should perhaps see if a home doctor would be willing to be called by a foreign doctor if problems arise.

A student who needs academic accommodations should make sure that those are arranged for the new setting. And a student who has benefited from regularly seeing a counselor should find out what will be available abroad, and if the counselor works in the college health system, should consider getting a specific referral and introduction.

Anyone on prescription medications, especially for mental health indications, should think through carefully the complexities of bringing an adequate supply, and should not take for granted that the same products will be available abroad. For example, medications for attention deficit hyperactivity may not be available for people over 18 in European countries.

I promise, none of these questions will be surprising or new to any college or university health system in a school that regularly sends students abroad.

And then — yes, you knew it was coming — there’s the alcohol issue. Many American students feel, rightly, that they get lumped into a cliché of too-much-drinking, especially by the European press. But it is also true that for some, being in a place where they are suddenly of legal drinking age presents temptations. It’s worth a conversation about drinking as an adult, in accordance with your family values and standards.

It’s also true that any city with many foreign students is likely to foster a certain number of not necessarily savory establishments catering in particular to those students. These are often the places where the ill-intentioned and the predatory hang out, looking for victims.

And remember — you know this, but I have to remind you — that after age 18, your child is entitled to full medical confidentiality under HIPAA. It’s up to you to discuss, ahead of time, how much you want to be in the loop if there are illnesses and problems, because it will be up to your child to contact you directly, when the time comes, or to give permission.

Older people, that is, the American parents (and sometimes grandparents) who visit students while they are studying abroad, or stay in close communication with them from home, and wait for their holiday visits, are often inclined to see these students as remarkably fortunate. There’s the I-never-got-to-do-this speech, or sometimes a speech about how smooth the way has been made for today’s students.

Why, when I was your age, we slept in barracks in the hostel. If we wanted to call home, we waited on line in huge post offices for a few minutes in a little phone booth.

It’s true that there were no cellphones when parents of today’s college students were young, and yes, you had to change money to a different currency in every European country (and you had to do it during bank hours), and no, there was no network of super-cheap budget airlines, more’s the pity.

The implicit moral might seem to be that today’s college students, with organized programs and strong supports in place, are somehow missing out on some essential element of discomfort and misery that is necessary for that real down-and-out-in-Paris-and-London travel experience.

But the somewhat moving reality, I think, is that study abroad for most college students remains a powerful and even transformative experience, that foreign countries and foreign cultures continue to surprise you and inform you and shake you up. That’s why students go, and that’s why the experience helps them grow; you bring yourself along, wherever you go, as travelers have always done, but you also come back changed and amazed and aware that the world is both very big and very small.