Susan Karda’s 19-year-old son Max is in his second year of law and history at university, but he’s not coming home to do his laundry anytime soon. He's studying at the University of Auckland, more than 11,351km—and a long flight—away from his parents in West Vancouver, BC.
If you’ve raised an adventurous, independent kid, chances are at some point they’ll end up an ocean away from you. And as more universities offer study abroad programs, and travel has begun to feel like an essential part of the scholastic experience, this point may come sooner than you expect.
Study abroad programs often take place in the third or fourth year of an undergraduate degree, or at any point of a master's or doctorate degree. These programs give young adults the opportunity to experience new places and cultures, make a diverse group of international friends, learn new language skills and gain a broader view of the world—all while earning credits.
But, while travel has many benefits, it’s not always the right choice for every student. Even though being away from home gives kids the chance to mature and take on more responsibility, it’s important they are ready emotionally, physically and mentally healthy, and have adequate finances in place before they travel.
Fortunately, most university programs have a sense of who’s prepared, and who may want to wait a bit longer to travel. So, while we can help steer our kids towards opportunities, in truth, our role as parents is to step back and only offer the kind of logistical support that helps them flourish.
Read on for steps and tips to help your student have a successful study abroad experience.
How to judge your child’s readiness to study abroad
Being prepared to head abroad really boils down to the idea that your kid needs to be self-sufficient enough to handle themselves away from home, in a place where the language and culture may not be familiar. While it’s handy to be able to speak the local language, do laundry or know how to cook a few basics, the main skill they’ll need is the ability to solve problems on their own.
While it can be hard for parents to judge if their child has reached this level of maturity, Brette McWhorter Sember says the strongest clues she had that her daughter Quinne was ready to participate in a program in Croatia were all the signs she had of her daughter’s growing independence.
“She knew what she wanted to do. She applied to the program and did it all herself,” says Sember.
Barb Adamski says she wasn't entirely sure her daughter Kaede was ready to go abroad on her own, but taking a trip together to Italy helped reassure her. “The big test was when she got tired of me and wanted to wander off on her own for most of the day,” says Adamski.
When to start planning for a semester or year abroad
Since different countries have different application requirements and timelines, you and your kid should start researching programs as soon as studying abroad becomes an interest—particularly if your family needs financial aid or scholarships.
This can be as early as high school. When looking at universities, consider seeking out options with strong study abroad programs. In some cases, these are stand-alone departments such as the Go Global program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In other schools, students can access international opportunities by reaching out to the academic advisor in their department or faculty.
Studying abroad isn’t necessarily more expensive than staying home.
This is also the time to set a clear budget and communicate this information to your child. The good news is that going abroad isn’t necessarily more expensive than staying home. The cost of living in different countries can be cheaper than it is in North America. And depending on the program you child chooses, tuition costs may stay the same because with many exchanges the tuition is waived at host institutions while tuition is paid to the student’s home university.
However, this doesn’t mean that study abroad is cheap: There are flights, visas and insurance to consider, and for students who live at home, there’s the added expense of room and board. Then, there’s the price tag of local travel over weekends and holidays while your child is abroad.
Helping your child choose the right study abroad program
Going abroad just for the travel is fine—but to get the most out of a trip, you may want to encourage your child to choose an option that helps them work toward a personal goal or to explore a career path (even if travel actually ends up helping to rule an option out).
When my daughter Maia was considering programs, she had a strong interest in developing her French skills, with the goal of becoming fluent. So, she jumped at the opportunity to attend Science Po in France. Even though the program was in English, she was expected to take intensive French classes and her everyday living would occur in French.
For Karda’s son Max, New Zealand held a strong appeal because that’s where his father was from.
“He found the school, the program and applied himself,” says Karda. For Max, he says it gave him the opportunity to discover a part of his identity he wouldn’t have been able to explore at home. “It opened my life to lots of introspection concerning my education and future plans,” he says.
In Adamski’s case, her daughter Kaede was drawn to Italy’s art and food scene. When she went to a school presentation about a summer semester at SACI Florence, which included a hands-on course in art conservation, she applied and was accepted.
Keep in mind, if your university kid isn't completing a degree abroad—but rather, spending only a semester or a year there—they should make sure the credits count toward their degree. If the credits don’t transfer, they should plan for the extra time it might take to obtain the degree.
Encouraging your university-aged child’s independence
How well your child can start the planning process and stick with the needed steps is a good way to judge if they are ready for the challenge of living abroad.
Encourage them to attend all the seminars that are offered at their school and, once they’ve started narrowing down their top choices for destinations and programs, ask them to start keeping track of the information they’ve collected so you can look at it together.
If their school has a strong go abroad program, they are likely to have a wealth of resources for your family to access including mock budget tools, like these from Simon Fraser University (SFU), information about the cost of partner schools such as this from Queen’s University and peer ambassador programs, which can connect them with students who have gone before. While it’s up to your kid to read through all the details, it can be useful to access the information yourself so you can ask targeted questions as the process moves along.
This is also the time to encourage your student to start seeking out scholarships through their study abroad program, home university, local cultural organizations, and national scholarship funds. Keep an eye out for mobility scholarships; these can help with the travel costs.
Preparing your young ones to leave the nest
Making a checklist together with all the needed steps including applying for visas, paying deposits and booking accommodation is a good way to keep an eye on your child’s progress while setting them up for success. You may want to include some or all of these items in your list:
• Set a budget: Don’t forget pre-trip expenses such as vaccinations, passport fees, and travel insurance.
• Get travel and health insurance: In my daughter Maia’s case, she was eligible for health insurance in France—but we knew this could take some time to kick in, so we arranged for interim insurance.
• Learn about the host country: Become familiar with the local laws, customs, and embassy locations. Check the Government of Canada’s Travel Advisory page for country-specific health information, safety tips, travel advice, and current travel warnings.
• Get copies of your child’s medical history: If they take medications, make sure they have a copy of their prescription and enough medication in hand before they go abroad.
• Make backups of important documents: Have your child make at least two copies of their passport, their visa, and the front and back of their credit and debit cards. Retain one and advise your child to leave one copy at their place of residence. In the event of an emergency, you'll each have access to the information to cancel cards or call the bank if there's an issue.
How to support your child from afar
Once your student is in place in their new country, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from them as often as hoped. With Maia, we made a deal that she checks in by WhatsApp at least once a week. When she caught COVID-19 during her first couple of weeks in France, and didn’t have much of a support system in place yet, we switched the check-in request to once daily, just so we could monitor how she was doing.
I also used the opportunity to sort out how to get a local care package to her and sent a box with cold medicines, soup, juice, tea, honey and a few familiar treats from home. This is something I repeated for her and her roommates at exam time.
Barb Adamski also had to assist Kaede when she broke her nose shortly after getting to Italy, including where to find a hospital. When Kaede couldn’t figure out where to buy an ice pack, Adamski reached out to the host university, who were able to assist. They even visited her in the hospital.
Don’t be surprised if your student goes through homesickness and self-doubt. A parenting pamphlet from UBC puts it this way: “Often it comes just after midterms, when work is piling up, marks aren’t what they’d hoped, they’re feeling overwhelmed and their coping skills begin to fail. They’re upset and chances are they’re going to call you. It’s important that you don’t panic; remember that this is normal, and as much as you’d like to alleviate their stress, you cannot (and should not) fix this for them. They rely on you to be calm and reassure them of their ability to successfully work through their challenges.”
If you do want to help, try to steer them back to school resources. SFU, for example, offers the International SOS program any time a student needs medical, security, and logistical support as well as free confidential 24/7 mental health and well-being support through the MySSP app. (For students who suffer from depression or anxiety, Verge has also produced an article on managing mental health concerns abroad.) Many universities are now doubling down to offer better support to diverse students, including racialized, LGBTQ+ and disabled students.
Finally, encourage them to jump in to local life. Although it’s easy for them just to stay connected to family and familiar friends, nudge them to get involved in their new school to get as much out of the experience as possible.
While most of the time the crisis will pass, you will know if you need to intervene further. After all, you’re the expert on your child. And if you falter or begin to worry, remember that research shows that the benefits of study abroad include better job prospects and the ability to be more adaptable and flexible.
Studying abroad can be challenging for parents and students alike—but it’s also life-changing and usually worth the planning and effort.Add this article to your reading list