Supporting Your Students as they Return from Abroad

You may have been prepared for your student’s emotional ups and downs while abroad, including their excitement and euphoria about discovering a new part of the world coupled with the challenges of finding their way in a new environment. What you may not have been prepared for was the re-entry experience of your child back into life at home and the ways in which they have changed.  

Deborah Smith whose son Nicholas Smith-Herman ’14, an Environmental Studies major, studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark during the fall 2011 semester, shares her advice on welcoming students home:

If you’re like most parents, you are happy to have your child home. You may think this chapter is over, but it is important to take time to reflect on the changes you see as a parent.

Study abroad usually occurs at the time that parents have begun to be more comfortable with their own college curriculum: learning to exert influence rather than control. The unavoidable concerns of parents when their students go beyond their easy reach may unsettle that dynamic. Parents, along with their children, become accustomed to living life by the semester:  pack and depart, midterm break, final crunch, sleep then sleep some more. Study abroad has these elements but it includes an extra final exam. 

This particular final examination is for parents and family. After all the new experiences, there is a story for the student to tell beyond text messages. What may not be intuitive is that the return and re-entry into family and school life is another part of the entire experience. Parents are so happy to have their child safely home that they may not appreciate how much their child has changed and will continue to change. 

Exposure and learning outside of their comfort zone sometimes changes that zone for a student. There may be a desire to foster the new friendships developed with peers in the host country and from other colleges and universities. This can be coupled with a feeling of having outgrown their place at home and being unsure of relationships with college friends. These feelings can be a source of anxiety and discomfort. However, this expansion of a social network should be supported and viewed as a sign of growth.

Most often the changes include an increased sense of confidence and maturity that come with negotiating a culturally different environment. Parents can help themselves get reacquainted with their new student by reflecting with their child on how this study abroad experience will be meaningful going forward. This is likely to be a process that takes place over the remainder of the Gettysburg experience and will be celebrated with colorful flag patches attached to their graduation gown.