PARENTS & FAMILY
Congratulations! Your student has chosen to participate in a study abroad program, a potentially pivotal experience in their intellectual and personal development. At the Duke Global Education Office for Undergraduates, we have seen countless undergraduates return having deepened not only their understanding of other languages and cultures, but also their confidence, maturity and self-awareness. By mastering the intricacies of academic culture and daily life in a foreign country, they demonstrate adaptability and resourcefulness that will carry them through their time at Duke and beyond.
As with any growth experience, study abroad is challenging, even before students leave the U.S. The volume of paperwork and logistical detail can be daunting, even to the most accomplished students. Once students arrive in country, they go through alternating waves of excitement and frustration as they adjust to their new surroundings. If the host language is not English, they may discover that their command of the language is not as strong as it seemed in the classroom at home. Foreign universities have some very different administrative practices, so in some cases just finding class schedules and getting registered can be a bewildering experience. Add to that the confusion of immigration bureaucracy, new transit systems, and unfamiliar foods, not to mention having to create an entirely new social network. The resulting stress can be especially intense for students who have never been abroad, or who are unaccustomed to being so far from their families.
Impact on Families
The experience can also be difficult for families. Given the uncertainties of today's world and media focus on disasters in other countries, parents are naturally concerned about keeping their students safe and making sure they have the best possible study abroad experience. This generation has unprecedented access to communication technology, and it is second nature for them to phone or email home in moments of anxiety. That anxiety may turn out to be fleeting for them, but can be very upsetting to parents hearing about it from such a distance and wanting to help. It can be difficult to sort out a genuine crisis from a simple misunderstanding, which can be compounded by language barriers, jet lag, and fatigue.
Uncertainty as Part of the Education Process
As education abroad professionals, we would like to offer our perspective on supporting your child through this exciting and unsettling time. We recommend keeping in mind that education is an active process, and that students learn best by confronting and solving problems themselves. Very often, the greatest discovery students make on study abroad is their own inner strength, their ability to think their way past their own fears and find creative solutions to unfamiliar problems.
In the words of one student, "A time abroad is vital to a sincere and far-reaching exploration of one's own self. In particular, you discover the limits of your patience ... and to what degree you can create successful situations. You develop self-reliance and build your own strengths in facing fear-inducing situations and especially, you realize the value of your own family, your culture, your background and experiences."*
So unless there is reason to believe students' health and safety are threatened, we suggest encouraging them to work out their own solutions. Remember that uncertainty is a natural part of the process of intercultural learning, and that the long term goal of study abroad is for your child to become a competent and confident citizen of the world.
GEO is Here to Help
This is not to say that our students are left to fend for themselves. There is information available to them every step of the way, on the GEO-U website, in the reference room, and through consultation with our experienced advisors. GEO-U staff members are here to help students at every stage, from program selection through awarding of credits. Students on Duke's programs have pre-departure orientations and receive both printed materials and emails keeping them up to date on what they need to do. If the program is not administered by Duke, our staff can help students determine who at the host university or study abroad provider would be the most appropriate contact for their questions.
Ways to Support Your Student
So what positive steps can parents and families take to help their students stay safe and get the most from study abroad? Some particularly important ones are:
1. Be fully informed: Ask your student for as much information as possible about the program, and be sure to familiarize yourself with the policies outlined in the Duke Abroad Handbook .Everyone involved should be well informed ahead of time about the financial and academic commitments required, and the possible consequences of not fulfilling them.
2. Talk to them about health and safety: Section V of the Handbook covers a number of important issues that you should discuss frankly with your son or daughter before departure. We encourage you to read it carefully and contact our office if you have questions.
3. Get documents in order: All study abroad participants will need a valid passport, and some may need study visas. Be sure to read carefully any program literature regarding student visa requirements. If it is a non-Duke program, please direct all visa-related questions directly to the program. You should have current passports so that, if the need arose, you could travel to the program site on short notice. You should also keep copies of your student's important documents (passport, ID, tickets, credit cards, etc.) for safekeeping.
4. Have a plan for communication: Make sure you have a good understanding of how to reach students at the program site and when they are traveling on their own, and that you have clear expectations about how closely they will be in touch with you.
Finally, please accept our heartfelt wishes that your student will have an enjoyable and enriching academic and cultural experience abroad. Do not hesitate to contact our office with questions or concerns related to the study abroad experience throughout the semester.
* Quoted in Hoffa, William W., Study Abroad: A Parent's Guide. Washington, DC: NAFSA Association of International Educators, 1998, p. 111.