Parent to Parent: Support Your Student’s Opportunity to Study Abroad

Our son, Joseph Portale ’14, spent the spring semester of his junior year in Copenhagen. Neither my wife nor I studied abroad, so this was new territory for all of us! Very exciting but also a little scary. We weren't really sure what to expect but left it to Joe and Gettysburg to get it all worked out. Joe was a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major, and Gettysburg provided him with study abroad options that would fit his academic needs—he chose Copenhagen, and it turned out to be a phenomenal experience.

Joe lived with a host family, which really immersed him into the Danish culture. They treated him as part of the family and made him feel at home. On campus, Gettysburg students come from all over the world, but studying abroad really broadened his appreciation for a global perspective in several ways. While there were other Gettysburg students in Copenhagen, Joe met students from other schools that were also in Denmark. Several of them took advantage of being in Europe and visited other cities on weekends. Besides just seeing different countries, he really gained an appreciation for how different we all are, yet how much we have in common. Beyond these ad hoc trips, his science class spent a week in London visiting pharmaceutical companies to see how they operate.

Upon his return, we noticed how much more confident Joe was and how the experience really helped him transition into adulthood. On campus he had a hundred-yard walk to class; while abroad he needed a bike and train to get to classes, and arranged all of the travel to other locations himself. There was definitely a sense of maturity, responsibility, and openness to new experiences when he returned.

My wife and I were members of what was then the Parents Advisory Board (PAB). We planned a trip to visit Joe in Copenhagen, and at the same time there was an International Educators meeting taking place there. As members of the PAB, we were invited to participate in some of the activities and we got to see behind the curtain of the study abroad experience from several perspectives. We sat in on meetings with administrators and faculty from other colleges as well as Gettysburg. We were impressed with the effort colleges put into making it a great experience for students. Everything from safety, to advising and academics, to matching host families is taken into consideration. From a parent's view, what we learned really made us feel good, knowing that all parties, including the receiving institution, went to great lengths to ensure a successful outcome.

In particular, I recall a discussion focused on helping students leverage their study abroad experience during a job interview. Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of interviewing potential new hires, many of whom are recent college graduates. I’ve noticed that when resumes reference studying abroad, interviewees rarely, if ever, bring this important point into the conversation. When I ask, it’s described more like a vacation – new places and experiences. I think they’re missing a large opportunity to share how this experience impacted or changed them. From an interviewer’s perspective, a candidate’s ability to recognize the value of their time abroad and articulate what the experience meant could be a significant differentiator. Gettysburg has a program called The Global Leaders of Gettysburg College, which gives students the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and transform them into opportunities for mentorship, scholarship, and activism—take advantage of it. I’d also advise parents to have open conversations with their students and encourage some self-reflection about their time abroad.

Our son has been out of school for two years now, and we are so happy he chose Gettysburg College. In addition to studying abroad, he joined a fraternity, made lifelong friends, had summer internships and worked with a professor in his lab. The entire experience really prepared him for the next phase of his life. It definitely helped shape who he is. Upon graduation, he accepted a position with a division of Johnson and Johnson, where he is currently a scientist doing cancer research. Seeing first-hand how firms operate around the world, and what it means to live in a global society, is an invaluable lesson. Having that appreciation for other cultures and the diversity of different geographic areas will serve him well as he progresses in his career. How often do we find ourselves either interacting with someone in another country, or, working side by side with someone from a different culture?

In summary, if your student has a desire to study outside of the U.S., I’d highly encourage you to support it wholeheartedly. No matter what one’s major or field of interest, there are programs available. With a little planning, and sometimes a little encouragement, it can turn out to be the chance of a lifetime.

Chuck and Helen Portale and are the parents of Joseph Portale ’14.

Read other stories written by parents for parents:


Global Initiatives
Develop citizens able to contribute and lead in a global society.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Carina Sitkus, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Photo credit: Chelsea Broe '14

Posted: Fri, 9 Sep 2016

Next on your reading list

Economics majors find career success across industries

Enhancing our campus, fostering new learning

Unexpected connections lead Elise Sondheim ’15 to Under Armour

Share this story: