Megan McClory is a History, Anthropology and East Asian Studies student with a minor in English at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2016. Megan is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.
Parents worry. That’s sort of their job.
Even if their son or daughter is 20 years old and hasn’t lived at home in years. Even if their child normally go to school hundreds of miles away and there’s this thing called a cell phone that reduces that distance to almost nothing.
Of course, that’s not to say the thousands of miles and great big ocean between Edinburgh and Chicago is nothing to scoff at. In the end, family plays a big role in a student’s decision to study abroad. Will I get homesick? Will they miss me? What if something happens and my mom’s nowhere near a computer to Skype me at the drop of a hat?
Especially for those of us with parents whose ability to handle a smartphone is….limited, this last one is a big concern. I talked to some of my friends studying through IFSA-Butler with me and asked them some questions about their families, regarding concerns about the study abroad process, the impact on parents and siblings and other ripple effects, how the experience compares to everyone’s expectations, and, of course, how they’ve worked out communication back home.
Anna, Nica and Lizzie come from different schools across the U.S., varying majors and with differing family backgrounds, so it was interesting to see the similarities and differences about their experiences so far.
First, I asked everyone if their parents were concerned about their decisions to study abroad and, without exception, I got a resounding ‘no’. As sophomores, juniors and seniors, our parents respect our decisions, encourage them, and recognize our responsibility.
I thought this was most obvious in Anna’s response as she said that her parents were “supportive as long as I made sure that I would have enough money/planned out my finances properly and didn’t go somewhere they considered dangerous.” Since her original plan was to go to Turkey for a semester and study in Istanbul, it’s obvious that parents have quite the impact on our decisions as students. Anna recognized her parents’ worries, having taken them seriously in her planning.
When considering studying abroad, it’s important that parents and their sons and daughters recognize that it’s a two-way street. As a student, it’s difficult when the people important to you don’t support your deliberations, but it’s just as difficult to see your parents worry about you to such a degree when you’re abroad. Compromising and meeting in the middle is an important part of the decision process. It’s a conversation between students and their families.
With that said, Istanbul is a very different city than Edinburgh, a major, English speaking capital with a very low crime rate. As Anna pointed out, most of us spend the majority of our time living in dorms. From the perspective of our families at home, does it seem so different whether we’re living in an Edinburgh dorm or a Boston one? Most of us don’t live at home during the school year, anyways, so being away is hardly a major concern.
Although, during emergencies, the distance certainly makes itself known. Towards the end of the term, Lizzie, a sophomore from Illinois, got sick. I won’t go into details here, but she missed several days of class, right before she was scheduled to fly home for a quick visit. Great timing, right? She made it back home safely, though her parents “worried about the plane ride and watched the plane all the way across the ocean to make sure [she] landed alright.”
But then her doctor wouldn’t give her the all clear to return to Edinburgh and she ended up missing quite a bit more class, making it back right as finals started. It’s these sorts of situations that families worry about, but rarely ever happen. Thankfully, Lizzie says that “was really supportive through the process which helped”, so even emergencies work themselves out one way or another, despite every parents’ fears.
Every family is different and this is especially true regarding siblings. I hardly ever see my own older brother, since he went off to university in Vermont and I entered Brandeis in Massachusetts. Our breaks rarely seem to match up. He’s graduating this year and we’re disappointed that I probably won’t make it back in time for the ceremony, but it didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Again, it’s different for everyone.
Nica is an only child, so when I asked her how her decision to study abroad affected her siblings, well, there wasn’t much to say. Anna’s relationship with her stepbrother is a lot like mine and my brother’s, since her stepbrother is a high school student still living at home and they rarely get the opportunity to meet. For us, it doesn’t make a major difference whether we’re going to school out of state or out of country.
Lizzie, however, “ended up having a stronger relationship” with her older sister, since she is also studying abroad in Scotland for her master’s degree. Lizzie says that whenever she or her sister “is homesick she hops on a train and we go and get lunch or she spends the night and we hang out for a day”. As you can see, the impact of the experience depends entirely on the sibling’s relationship in the first place. For a younger sibling, it’s often difficult when their older brother or sister goes off to college, but most students rarely study abroad their first year as a university of student, so generally speaking, it’s not the first time for the siblings to be apart.
Rather, for Nica and me, it was much stranger being away from friends at our home universities. The time difference makes it much more difficult to communicate with another student across the Atlantic, and I’ve found that I rarely talk to my friends from Brandeis because our schedules simply never match up.
And, of course, we make new friends here in Edinburgh; consequently, Nica says that while she’s here “I’ve relied on my friends at home less and less. As a result, we feel out of the loop of each others’ lives.” Since you’re no longer a part of the everyday life of your home university—you can’t compare schedules at the beginning of the term, or try and figure out housing together or have those casual meet ups in the cafeteria—you can’t help but fall of the loop, as Nica put it, instead making another circle of friends around you at your host university.
That’s not to say that you and your friends from home won’t talk; there are plenty of new experiences that you want to share, but you find you have to put in a concentrated effort to do so: scheduling Skypes instead of meeting in the dining hall, holding off until the afternoon to share what happened the night before because you know everyone in the U.S. is still asleep. It certainly tests relationships, but, Nica, is “confident this will fix itself when I get back!” As for her new friends in Edinburgh, well, she already has plans to come visit them in the spring!
Sometimes I forget just how far from home I really am. I try not to travel between Brandeis and Chicago too much during a normal school year, so I’m used to calling my mom rather than seeing her in person. The biggest reminder is that I can’t just pick up my phone and give her a call when I need to; I have to schedule it, waiting for her to check Facebook on her computer, since, despite having a smartphone, she hasn’t actually tested its capabilities yet…
However, we did make sure she got a webcam before I left for Scotland. She’s not exactly tech savvy, so this was a new thing for her, but it’s really made communication between the two of us a lot easier. When I asked Nica, Lizzie and Anna, I found they talk to their parents even more often than I do.
Anna texts her mom a couple times a week, Skyping every other week. Nica texts her parents every day, Skypes with them now and then, and they even came to visit for Thanksgiving. Lizzie has a group chat with her parents and her sister using an app called Viber and they chat every day, keeping each other updated. She also visited home over Thanksgiving and her sister makes periodic stops to visit her in Edinburgh, since she’s also studying in Scotland.
Even if home might be far away, there are more than enough options that keep us connected.