Studying Abroad: 7 Things Parents Need to Know

Last Updated Dec 16, 2009 3:23 PM EST

It took 24 hours, but my daughter, who is studying abroad for the year at the University of Barcelona, made it home for the holidays last night.

My daughter Caitlin has studied abroad twice. She also spent a summer in Orizaba, Mexico, taking university classes and interning for a Mexican social service agency. Both experiences have been filled with eye-opening, life-affirming, scary and priceless moments.

If your college-age children want to study abroad, here are 7 tips to make the adventure a safe and rewarding one:

Assess your child's maturity level. Lots of Americans studying abroad spend too much time in bars since the drinking age is lower. Of course, college students don't need to live on another continent to get drunk. But reckless behavior just seems scarier when it's in another country.

One of the students in Caitlin's programs, for instance, was so drunk a couple of weeks ago that she ended up passed out on a curb in Barcelona at dawn. Someone snatched her camera when she was in a stupor, but she was lucky considering what could have happened. Another student Caitlin knows is probably going to flunk all her classes and the girl's plans to study in Barcelona for two semesters has crumbled. Ask yourself if your child is mature enough to handle living in a foreign country.

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! Of course, that bizarre requirement was not posted anywhere on the instructions that Caitlin pulled off the Spanish Consulate's website.

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.

Don't get sick. I'm only sort of kidding. Caitlin's best friend in Barcelona was sick for more than a week in Spain when a Spanish physician diagnosed her with a bad cold. When Hannah began feeling like her insides were going to explode, her dad, who is a cardiologist at Dartmouth College, got involved. Via Skype, her father concluded that Hannah was suffering from kidney stones.

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.

Get contact numbers. Before your child flies off on a grand adventure, make sure you know who to contact if something goes wrong or you lose touch with your child. When my daughter spent a summer taking classes and interning in Orizaba, Mexico, I ended up calling my daughter's contact in the U.S. after Caitlin mentioned that a young wealthy woman had been kidnapped, raped and murdered near where Caitlin was living. Caitlin wasn't concerned at all about her own safety since it was considered a drug murder, but I freaked out. The contact person at Juniata College had to talk me off the ledge.

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 last night 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.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also blogs about college for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.

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