Studying Abroad: What Parents Need to Know

Below you’ll find a guest blog that Bob Bessette, the father of a rising senior at Bowdoin College in Maine, wrote. This post first appeared on my college blog in December when Bessette’s daughter  was finishing up her semester abroad in Ireland.

I am rerunning this blog post primarily because my own son Ben, who is a rising junior at Beloit College, will be heading overseas in less than a month. Ben will be participating in a semester-abroad math program that is offered by St. Olaf College.

I also wrote a post about studying abroad when my daughter Caitlin was studying at the University of Barcelona for two semesters: Studying Abroad: 7 Things Parents Should Know

Here is the advice from Bob who writes his own blog at TotallyUniqueLife:

Studying Abroad in Ireland

University College Cork

Four long months have passed since our daughter left to study abroad at the University College Cork in Ireland.  When she returns in a week,  she will be presumably a lot wiser, not only in the subject matter she has been studying, but also in the ways of the world.

I guess that’s the essence of studying abroad – to expand your horizons and get to know another culture other than the one you have lived in for your whole life.  Based on a recent conversation with my daughter, it appears that the study abroad semester has been successful.  She said just the other day during a Skype session,

I’m just starting to realize that I’ll be leaving soon. Ya know, I’m really going to miss this place but I’m really looking forward to coming home.”

Isn’t this what you really want to hear as a parent?  She has fostered friendships with others who were also studying abroad, as well as with Irish students.  During this time she has also been able to visit two additional countries, Scotland and Italy.

She created a life for herself at her dorm making dinner on a nightly basis with roommates from other countries that also enjoy the cooking process.  She has explored the region, gotten to know the natives at the local marketplace and pubs, and has garnered a true sense of what the Irish culture is all about.

Study Abroad Tips for Parents

As parents, this was the first time my daughter had ever gone on a plane by herself.  We have traveled to Greece, Spain, and domestically as a family over the years, but this was the first time we ever watched, with misty eyes, as she walked through security to head off on her own adventure without us. Actually, it was a lot tougher leaving her off at college for the first time.  But this was different since we couldn’t just jump into our car, drive two hours, and be with her should she need us.  After four months of dealing with our daughter studying abroad, here are five tips I’d like to share with parents whose children are about to embark on a similar experience.

1. Finalize Travel Plans

One rather unnerving experience occurred while we were checking my daughter’s bags at the airline terminal the day she was leaving for Ireland.  The attendant asked my daughter if she had her return ticket yet and she responded “Not yet”.  The attendant told her “Then I can’t let you travel today”.  Needless to say, we were taken aback.  He explained that there was a recent edict from the State Department disallowing foreign travel unless a return flight was already booked.

Luckily my daughter had already scoped out return flights so she had a good idea of what it would cost.  She asked him if she could buy a ticket online right there using her laptop. He said “Sure” but he just needed to see the details and proof of purchase.  Within minutes she had bought her ticket online, showed him the ticket number, and we were on our way to eat some lunch before she was off to the security line.  Look into whether or not your child will need a return ticket before taking off.  It may save you from some heart palpitations at the airport.

What is strange is that my daughter actually knew of others from the U.S who did not buy their return flight before they left and had no problems flying to Ireland.  Perhaps it was a temporary thing or something related specifically to the airline.

2. Skype is your Friend

If you have not heard of Skype yet, get to know it.  Skype is a software application that will allow you to have a video chat with your child over the internet at no cost.  All it requires is that you download the application onto your computer and your child does the same.  You will also need a webcam that will plug into a USB port on your computer.  My daughter’s laptop already had a built-in webcam.  We had to buy one for our computer at a very reasonable cost.

One amazing aspect of this study abroad experience is that we actually have had more contact with our daughter since she has been in Ireland than when she is two hours away at college.  With Skype we have gotten to see and talk to her regularly and have not missed her nearly as much as we thought we would have.  There is something about seeing her and talking to her, in lieu of using email or talking on the phone, that allays those pangs of separation anxiety.  If there is one tip I would give any parent whose child is heading abroad it’s download Skype.

Technical Note: When my daughter got to Ireland she could not use Skype in her room at the dorm due to what we thought was a firewall issue.  What was strange was that another roommate could use Skype to communicate with her family.  We discovered that the latest version of Skype, which was on my daughter’s computer, would not work with the in-dorm proxy server.  All she had to do was uninstall the latest version of Skype, install the older version and Skype was up and running.  Hopefully your child does not have a similar issue but, if he or she does, this could be a potential solution.

3. Consider Social Media

My wife and I do not do Facebook but, to be honest, it may make a lot of sense to create a Facebook page so that you can have access to any pictures or comments that your child posts to their Facebook page.  Fortunately, my daughter created a blog when she went to Ireland that allowed us to see her pictures and hear of her adventures in Europe.  The only problem is that she posted all of her pictures on Facebook but only a few on the blog.  We had to ask our youngest daughter or other family members to log into their Facebook page so that we can see the many pictures our eldest has posted.

If you use Twitter and your child does as well, this is another way of using Social Media to keep in touch with your child abroad.  My daughter doesn’t do Twitter but, believe it or not, I do so it wasn’t a viable mode of communication for us.  It could be another option if both you and your child are regular Tweeters.

4. Bring Enough of the Essentials

This may seem obvious but some of the basic items that your child uses every day may not be available in the country to which they are heading.  For example, my daughter could not find quality dental floss or Chapstick in Ireland.  These are two items that she uses every day.  So I ended up shipping her 2 packs of dental floss and a 3-pack of Chapstick in one of those padded envelopes.  Unfortunately, the package did not arrive for over a month and we had thought it had gotten lost in the mail.  In the meantime, she was able to get these items from someone else who was visiting from the States.  If your child uses something on a regular basis, make sure they bring enough of it to last them the amount of time that they will be abroad.

5. Try to Relax

We, as parents, go through a lot when it comes to our children.  If you are anything like my wife and I, you worry about anything and everything that could go wrong with your child.  It is especially difficult when they are in another country far away from your control.  If I were to give some advice to my fellow parents it would be to try to concentrate on the many benefits of the adventure on which your child is about to embark.  If you try to focus on how much your child will gain from this experience, it will be a lot easier for you to relax.

In one week we will be welcoming our child, with open arms, back from an adventure that only she has experienced.  It was tough on all of us but personal growth is achieved through trying times.  I somehow think that she will be a little bit older and little bit wiser from the experience.  I wish you and your child much success with your mutual study abroad experience!

Bob Bessette is a parent who has felt the pangs of separation anxiety associated with his daughter going away to college.  He writes about experiences like this, and others, on his own blog entitled TotallyUniqueLife, which deals with practical solutions, tips, and advice for your life.


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  1. Hi! I just need to weigh in on Point #1 regarding the need for round-trip tickets. The U.S. State Department has not issued any edict requiring travellers to possess a round-trip ticket in order to depart the country. I know because I am a Foreign Service officer. What the airline agent *probably* was saying is that Irish immigration would want to see a round-trip ticket to ensure that the young lady was indeed planning a temporary stay in that country. (Entry requirements for short-term/exchange students to Ireland are published online.) Airlines can be fined for allowing passengers to embark without proper documentation, including appropriate visas and ticketing, so most airlines will check a passenger’s ticketing status before letting them on the plane. But it is in no way a U.S. government-mandated requirement. Specific countries can have different rules, so anyone planning a semester or two abroad should make sure they have the proper documentation for the country they are heading to. (And when you do get there, make sure you attend the presentation that I or one of my colleagues will give at your school on how to have a good time without getting in trouble!)

  2. Can families still get a financial break when their child studies abroad? When I was in college I spent a semester in Madrid. Because my school (private) didn’t offer a program in Spain I joined a program through another university. My tuition costs were cut in half that semester, and I also saved a lot on room and board by renting out a room in an apartment. I used the money we saved to spend a month traveling throughout Europe. I’m curious if this is still a way to save money over the course of a college career.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    Thanks so much for re-running my article about parental tips on studying abroad. My daughter thinks so fondly on her time in Ireland and she would recommend studying abroad to anyone in college. I also want to wish your son much enjoyment and success studying abroad in Budapest! I’m sure he is excited at the prospect.

    Since your daughter already studied abroad, you’re an old expert at dealing with having a child so far away for an extended period. It’s funny, almost like clockwork, my blog gets much more traffic on my articles about college separation anxiety about this time of year. I remember that time for my wife and I and how difficult it was saying goodbye to my eldest when she was a freshman at Bowdoin. She is now starting her senior year at Bowdoin in a few weeks and she has enjoyed every minute of it. Time has certainly flown!

    To any parent who has to deal with that pain of separation, it gets better! It’s part of the contract when we signed up for the job of parent. I will have to do it all over again in about a year when my youngest daughter heads off to college for the first time. Hopefully, it will be a lot easier for me at that time but I’m not counting on it 🙂

    Bob Bessette

    1. Thanks Bob for your great post and for the update!

      I think heading off to college is often harder on the parents than the students. But your advice is sound — remember we spent many years preparing our children for this milestone in their lives!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. I wanted to pass along this additional tip from a mom, who emailed me this morning, that I think is important to share. Lynn O.

    Loved the article about studying abroad. I hope my sons are able to do that.

    One thing I would add (coming from Seattle that is the home of Amanda Knox) is to make sure your kids know what to do if they are arrested for anything(whether or not they did what they are being arrested for). Do they know who to call? Do they know what to say? No one like to think of this scenario but it could become a nightmare if not handled correctly…

    Enjoy your books and blog!