For most students, choosing a university is the first important decision they will make as adults, and it is one that shapes and influences that student's life – both present and future. But what if student preference or family circumstances dictate that going to school far away is the best choice – in fact, as far away as another country?
There are substantial benefits to attending university in another country. This is true whether a student chooses to go abroad to university, a family wants their child educated in another country, or a family living abroad decides that their child should attend university in their home country. A student from abroad is thrust into an environment that may be very different from one they already know, and if they are open to new experiences there is an extraordinary amount for them to learn. If your child wants to attend a foreign university, as an international student they will become part of a minority. They will, however, be given the opportunity to meet and make friends with other students from all over the world – both local students and other members of the university's international population. Your child will learn how to deal with obvious challenges, like language barriers, and being far from home (a weighty concern for any new university student). But your child will, perhaps, learn most from the more nuanced aspects of cultural differences – including academic ones as well as social ones. For example, what are the rules around dating? Or does class participation count as part of a grade?
Why attend university abroad?
Picking one university to attend is a truly overwhelming choice for some. With myriad schools all over the world, students and parents alike stress about choosing the right one. You and your child need to ask yourselves why s/he wants to attend a foreign university. Does your child like to travel? Is s/he interested in being part of a diverse international community? Does your child enjoy personal challenges (like living alone in a new country)? And what about the school itself – is your child interested in one specific university with a great international reputation, or is s/he just itching for a change?
Things to consider:
- Complexities of the Application Process: Is your child prepared for the application process to a foreign university? The first thing to consider is the difficulty of visiting schools far from home. We recommend that no child attend a school they haven't visited – preferably for an overnight stay. Co-educational dormitories, even bathrooms, can come as a shock to students from many other parts of the world.
- Once you have determined that visits are feasible, your child may need to prepare for this process far ahead of time. Many countries rely on standardized testing for university admissions. Is it easy to find a test site in the home country? Are curriculum differences so large as to make studying for these exams a huge burden, particularly at the same time that they need to excel at their regular academic work? Find out how much extra studying your child will need to do to prepare for this exam.
- Academics: Fundamentally, choosing a university is about your child's education. Is the school your child wants to attend a good fit for your child? Are the academics challenging, but not too challenging? How compatible is your child's current curriculum with that of the school they want to attend? For example, the academic transition from a U.S. high school to a Canadian university is relatively simple because the countries' high school curricula and teaching methods are similar, but a high school student going from China to Canada might encounter more obstacles in attending university than local students at first due to differences between the Chinese and Canadian education systems.
- How motivated is your child? Many universities provide extensive academic as well as social guidance for students, but universities in other parts of the world treat students as adults. Will your child be able to achieve academically without the support system they had in high school?
- Social Concerns: Is your child outgoing? Does s/he make friends easily? Will s/he be comfortable as part of a minority? Will s/he cling to his or her own minority and forego all opportunities to integrate with other cultures? As an international student, your child may need to try a little bit harder to make friends so s/he can build a support system quickly in a place where s/he may not know anyone, and may feel very out of place. If your child is adventurous and excited about meeting new and very different people, s/he may thrive in a new social environment like a foreign university. Do you or does your child know anybody in this foreign country? If you have a relative or family friend close by, that may ease your or your child's mind about going far away and provide support during the transition.
- Cultural Differences: Where does your child want to go to school? A child who is eager to experience a different way of life is likely to be more comfortable living in the midst of different cultures in terms of food, holidays, family values, and physical facilities. There are enormous ways that cultural differences play out in the world of education. Have students been taught to answer the questions or to ask them? What is the role of the teacher in the country where the child has been educated? Is s/he the center of the educational experience or a facilitator? What are the rules around cheating, plagiarism or any honor code that exists? Are peers in school primarily to work or to have fun? Reading about the host culture will provide many cues to help your child decide whether the experience will be a positive one or traumatic.
Tips that may help your child have a smooth transition:
- Visit! If you can, visit your child. If your child is going far away, make the school visit into a family vacation for you and the rest of your family. If you are from Brazil and your child is going to school in England, take a little road trip around France together, or go skiing in the Swiss Alps. That way you can all experience something new together, and spend valuable family time with each other. Have your child show you his or her favorite spots around his/her new city. If you've been there before, show your child your favorite spots in that city. If you and your child are both new to the city, do some sightseeing together. This way you can still be a part of your child's life in a new country even if you may not be there for parents' weekend or s/he may not come home for local holidays.
- Encourage your child to join groups. As an international student, your child may have trouble making friends right away. An easy way to combat this is to encourage your child to meet people however s/he can. Is the university having a gathering for accepted students in your home country? Are there school groups on Facebook? Your child can start making friends before s/he even gets to school! Is there an international students association at the school? If your child joins, s/he can make friends with people in similar situations. Your child should attend a school's club night in order to meet people with like interests. Extracurricular activities, whether they be sports or orchestra will put your child in the company of others that share his/her interests.
While parents have a say in where their child attends university – whether in a country you are living in as a family or abroad, this critical choice is ultimately about what will make your child happy – during the university years as well as successful and independent later in life. Does your child actually want to go to school abroad, or is that something that you want for him or her? You can definitely guide your child in the right direction while they choose a university, but in the end all you can really do is make sure your child is well-informed and that they make the best decision for themselves.