What You Need to Know About Studying Abroad

If your child plans to study abroad while while in college, you need to prepare yourself. I wrote an blog post for CBS MoneyWatch that discusses what parents and students need to know about studying abroad based on the experience of my own daughter Caitlin, who attended the University of Barcelona for a year.

You can find all the advice at Studying Aboard: 7 Things Parents Need to Know

Here are some of the tips:

Get Skype.

If you haven’t downloaded Skype on your computer, do it before your child heads abroad. My daughter called me almost every day on Skype so I feel like she’s never really left. She told me when we were driving home from the airport after her first semester in Barcelona that American students want to hear from their parents more when they are studying abroad because the emotional connection is important when they are living in a strange land. And that includes students who are normally quite self sufficient.

Start early.

Studying overseas requires completing lots of paperwork. The biggest pain for Caitlin was obtaining her student visa from the Spanish Consulate, which required a trek to Los Angeles with her file folder jammed with documents. Caitlin had double and triple checked the items she needed, but the consulate still rejected her initial visa request.

What was Caitlin’s omission?  As instructed, she had brought a statement from our local police department that stated that Caitlin wasn’t a criminal. A consulate worker told her, however, that this letter had to be notarized by government employees with San Diego County and the state of California!

At least Caitlin had time to collect the signatures and return to LA on another day. When we were waiting in the consulate’s lobby, a hysterical Spanish woman pleaded unsuccessfully for permission to allow her American husband to travel to Spain on their honeymoon despite a glitch in the paperwork.

Understand that college elsewhere is different.

Attending universities in Europe is more impersonal than in the United States. Caitlin attends Juniata College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, where all her professors know her and they are always eager to chat and be helpful. Not so in Spain. Professors seem to give lectures and then call it a day.

Caitlin discovered just how unapproachable some of them are when she asked a professor at the University of Barcelona to write her a short recommendation. She needed it to apply for a grant to attend a political conference in Paris in the spring. The professor seemed shocked that Caitlin would approach him and he didn’t appear to understand what a recommendation was.

When Caitlin didn’t know the exact name of the grant program – and she hadn’t brought him a pen – he called her a “disaster.” Later, when they walked to the classroom where the final exam was held last week, the professor blurted out to the students, “It’s all Caitlin’s fault that I’m late.” Caitlin, however, persevered and got the recommendation she needed.

Encourage your child to take advantage of his/her surroundings.

It’s easy to attend school in a bubble. Americans tend to hang around other Americans. One of my daughter’s top goals in Barcelona was to ditch most of the Americans. One of Caitlin’s best Barcelona friends turned out to be a 60-year-old woman, who has taken Caitlin mushroom hunting and hiking in the Pyrenees. Caitlin has got herself invited to fondue, chocolate and dinner parties where she’s met people from Germany, Italy, Israel, South American and elsewhere. She’s learned about wild Spanish traditions of which I’d put el Caga Tio, the bizarre Catalan Yule Log, at the top of the list.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report.

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  1. Glad to hear Caitlin is enjoying Barcelona. We visited there almost a couple of years ago while we were living in England and really loved the place. In fact, it reminded me a little bit of Southern California (we left there in ’96). I’m also glad that she’s taking the initiative to break from other Americans. I hope my kids do the same when they are the same age!