Last Updated: May 8, 2019
The opportunity to study abroad is wonderful. International experiences can leave students with a sense of knowing the world, provide them with the ability to understand and learn about new cultures, and certainly looks good on a résumé. Within reason, most countries are not going to be any less safe than the United States. However, safety issues often come in the form of language barriers and the isolation of being an outsider. Studying abroad is definitely a “know before you go” sort of situation. And there are several things that parents should discuss with their children before their trip to help them stay safe and still have a great time while studying in another country.
A student from the United States should know at least a little bit of the language before they leave for their semester abroad. Even if the school has a translator, any given student will find themselves in need of effective communication at some point during their trip. They don’t have to have perfect vocabulary or pronunciation, but they should know some basic phrases. Many phrase books are small and have a pullout card that can be carried in a pocket, purse, or wallet. Electronic translators are also great, but students should carry a paper backup in case their electronics run out of battery. Certain numbers are different and should also be learned; for example, “911” in the United States is “999” in the United Kingdom.
Students who are going abroad should know where the closest US Embassy is located. Most travelers won’t need to use the Embassy at all, but some will need to visit if their passport is lost or stolen or if they have other paperwork issues. Calling the US Embassy may result in being put on hold for a long time, so students should be prepared to visit in person in case of emergency.
It isn’t safe to be wandering alone in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago at 3:00 am. It’s also not safe to be wandering around Rome or London or Tokyo at 3:00 am. Common sense is universal. Students studying together should have plans to meet up or check in at certain times. They should not interact with people who just don’t seem right—“stranger danger!”—and they should not travel alone after certain hours. Basically, everything that kids learned in kindergarten holds true. They just need to be smart.
Keeping in touch
Keeping in touch with kids who are abroad provides peace of mind and is a great way to see if everything is going okay. Modern technology makes this very easy. Simply add Skype to their portable electronic device and add an international text and talk plan. Then set up a time each day or week to chat with your kids and see how they’re doing.
Cultural norms and customs vary throughout the world. Some may seem highly unusual to Americans, while some of our customs may seem highly unusual to other cultures. For the most part, they are not better or worse—just different. There is not so much of a safety issue here, but learning local customs can make studying abroad less stressful to say the least. For instance, most metropolitan cities in Europe do not serve “tap” water, so expect to pay for water at the table. In Italy, customers must carry their paper receipt with them until they are about 400 yards away from a shop or stall. And many European trains will have a small restroom that passengers can use for free, but the station restroom often costs one euro to use.
Students who study abroad often stick within their American group of friends and don’t venture out to meet any locals. Without getting to know local people, travelers are really missing out. Students who are less adventuresome can chat with local shopkeepers or café servers to get to know the area. They can also meet students from around the world who are studying abroad as well. Coffee shops and school libraries are a great place to meet new people in a sheltered environment.
It would be very unusual for a student to have their own car while studying abroad, so they should get to know the local transportation system. Most European cities have excellent public transportation, but it can be confusing to read the bus or train maps in a foreign language. Many smaller towns stop their city-to-city trains after 5:00 or 6:00 pm. Travelers should research this prior to leaving the United States and always travel with a friend for their first day trip.
Many students forget about the smaller towns. Throughout the world, small towns are generally safer than large cities, but they are less likely to have English speakers. A student who wants to travel to Scotland might find that it is easier, and safer, to spend time in Aberdeen than Edinburgh. The same would hold true for a student who chooses to stay in Irvine, California, instead of downtown Los Angeles.