Having support from and communication with family members and friends back home is important for every student who studies abroad. Outlined here are different ways for you to better understand what your student may experience during study abroad and how to stay connected with your student during his or her time overseas.
The cultural adaptation process, or so-called "culture shock", is an inevitable and important part of the study abroad experience. It is the challenge of adapting to new social, economic and educational systems, as well as to unfamiliar foods, climate, and language that instills confidence, empathy, and a greater respect for one's own culture. Cultural adjustment builds problem-solving abilities, flexibility, and initiative- skills and characteristics that will remain with your student as they enter the work force and make them highly competitive job candidates.
The key to coping with cultural adjustment for both students and families is patience. The process is normal and temporary. You may receive a flurry of letters, phone calls or e-mails during the first weeks of the experience and at traditional holiday times; don't be alarmed or discouraged if your student seems negative about the host culture or program. They may be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment and haven't yet learned to respond with confidence to their new surroundings. Your best response is to be sympathetic and supportive, but to help them remember that their feelings of irritation and homesickness are normal and temporary. Remind them of their long-term goals for the experience.
The Study Abroad Office often receives phone calls from family members who haven't heard from their students in several days or weeks. Their infrequent contact is rarely cause for concern. After the initial wave of calls home seeking support and a sympathetic ear, your son or daughter will adjust to their host culture, make new friendships and gain confidence. Their correspondence may become less frequent as they overcome their initial homesickness. If you feel that they are not coping well with cultural adjustment, please don't hesitate to contact the Study Abroad Office.
Keeping connected with your student overseas
Mail service can be slow, taking from ten days to a month for first class airmail. Surface mail will generally take two to three months and provides an inexpensive way to send additional clothing or other items to participants planning a longer stay. You should include an itemized list of the contents in the package and check with the US postal service or a private delivery service for any restrictions. We recommend, however, that you do not send items of great value through the regular mail service. Express service is available, though generally more expensive, through services such as the US Postal Service, Federal Express, DHL, and United Parcel Service.Since homesickness can be very strong in the first weeks of the program, we encourage you to write before departure so that the participant receives a letter from home shortly after arrival. A letter can make all the difference in the world to a lonely participant. We also encourage you to save the letters written to you over the course of the program. It can be a nice way for all of you to trace the changes and discoveries that occur during a study abroad experience.
Almost all study abroad locations are able to provide email access. Participants will generally have email access at the host university (if applicable) or at internet cafes.
In general, it is much more expensive to make telephone calls to the US from another country than to call from the US to a location overseas. Calling collect from another country to the US via a service such as USA Direct™ will most likely be less expensive than dialing direct and paying local rates from another country.
Most students purchase phone cards in the host country in order to call family and friends in the US. Phone cards are convenient and offer competitive rates. Alternatively, participants may wish to pre-arrange a date and time to receive a call from the US to a specified number. Another option is for the participant to call collect to the US to confirm the overseas telephone number, hang up, and then have the person in the US call the participant. However, some host families may be reticent to allow long distance or local telephone calls to be made or received in the home as there may be a charge for each use of the phone. Most countries do not itemize their bills the way we do in the US which makes it impossible for the family to know the cost of each individual call. In some countries, international calls can also be made from the post office or a central telephone building.
In some countries, cell phones are even more omnipresent abroad than in the U.S. and many study abroad students purchase or rent them at relatively low cost. Keep in mind that most U.S. cell phones will not work abroad unless the phone is a GSM (Global System for Mobal Communications), the standard technology used by cell phone providers in more than 200 countries. U.S. carriers selling GSM world phones include T-Mobile, AT&T, Cingular, and Nextel. However, even if your student's cell phone works overseas, this solution is not for the typical student budget as roaming charges in another country can range from $1 to $5 per minute.
But the immediacy of cell phone and e-mail communication is not without its hazards. Because students are encountering unfamiliar situations and may be unsure how to conduct themselves or to assess specific situations, it is not unusual for them to call their parents to share their concerns before they have had a chance to analyze the situation and to discuss the problem with on-site staff. Parents often hear the worst, with students complaining that “no one is helping,” or that what they remember as being promised has not materialized. The Study Abroad Office is of course glad to assist parents in addressing such problems, but we also recommend strongly that as a first step students discuss the problem with the on-site staff, who are likely to have the best perspective on the situation. This is what we ourselves recommend to students, and it is often all that is necessary to resolve a problem. Students’ learning to problem-solve in this fashion is part of the personal growth that accompanies study abroad.
Friends and family members should be aware that it is not always easy or convenient for a participant to call home immediately upon arrival in the host country. In some cases it may take several days for a participant to make an international call and occasionally telephone access may be impossible.