Visiting Parents

As More Young People Study Abroad, Visiting Parents Get Their Own Worldly Education

by Anne Ondrey

We had just arrived at our hotel in Salamanca, Spain, and I was standing on the street out in front, trying to get my bearings, when who comes bounding toward me -- just like he belongs there -- but my 16-year-old son, Joe. "Hi, Mom," he says, acting as if we just ran into each other on a street corner in our hometown of Chardon.

Joe was spending a month studying Spanish at Estudio Sampere, a language school in Salamanca, and even though he had been there only a week, he seemed to know his way around and could order food passably in a restaurant.

My husband, my daughter and I took this delightful trip to Spain last year because our son was studying overseas. More and more parents are doing the same -- using their child's study- or volunteer-abroad experience as the basis for seeing the world.

Tim and Lisa Cannon of Painesville never really planned to vacation in South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

But over the holidays in December 2006, they made the trip for one compelling reason: to see their daughter, Sarah, who was serving in the Peace Corps.

"It truly was a trip of a lifetime," said Lisa Cannon. "All in all, we are most grateful that we had the opportunity to visit a continent that we probably would never have visited if we did not have a child living there. We loved our experience in Africa."

If more parents are visiting overseas, it's mostly because of the dramatic increase in the number of U.S. students studying abroad. During the past 10 years, the total has jumped from about 100,000 in the 1996-97 academic year to more than 240,000 in 2006-07, according to the Institute of International Education.

Ohio was sixth in the nation sending students overseas in 2006-2007, with 10,233.

Last year, Ohio State University had about 1,800 students studying overseas, with England, Italy, Germany, China and France as the top destinations, said Grace Johnson, the school's director of study abroad.

The appropriateness of a visit from parents depends on many factors, she said, including the length of the student's program overseas. "If a student is overseas for a whole year, going when they have their school break is a great thing to do," said Johnson. "If the student is there for six weeks, and Mom and Dad show up for five days, that sort of chops things up."

Jeff and Mary Sopko of Richfield visited each of their daughters during their study-abroad semesters, Abby in London in May 2000 and Kelly in Ireland in May 2006. They were able to spend every day together because they went when their daughters were on breaks.

Holly Scott of Russell Township visited her daughter, Sarah, in November 2007 in Greece, where Sarah was studying with the College Year in Athens program. Although Sarah wasn't on break, she and her mother were able to find enough time to visit.

"She had classes a few days, but even on those days, we met for coffee, a walk, lunch or a quick sightseeing trip in the middle of the day," Holly Scott said. Her travel highlight was a side trip to Monemvassia, a tiny island at the tip of the Peloponnese peninsula, connected to the mainland by a small causeway with donkeys as the main form of transport.

Mike and Fiona Reilly of Cleveland Heights took a slightly different approach when their daughter, Lindsey, was studying in Granada, Spain.

During her spring break in March 2008, they took their two sons and Fiona's parents to Paris, where they met Lindsey and celebrated Fiona's father's 88th birthday in style.

"We decided to rendezvous in Paris instead of traveling to southern Spain, as Paris was easier to get to," Fiona Reilly explained.

The most impressive part of these trips, according to parents, isn't the scenery or itinerary — it's seeing their children navigate with ease through a foreign culture.

"The best thing was seeing her feel so comfortable in another culture, with another language, with totally new people and professors," said Holly Scott. "By the time I arrived, she [Sarah] felt very at ease with the language and was able to navigate restaurants, cabs, trains, stores, nearly everything with confidence  and a great accent!"

Parents also benefit by seeing the land with a knowledgeable tour guide  their child.

"We were able to see the country through their eyes," said Mary Sopko. "They had made friends with the locals, whom we were able to meet, and they knew all of the off-the-beaten-track places to eat."

In addition, all of the parents felt the "role reversal" of having their child lead them around an unknown city.

"Having the student 'show them' the country or city makes their student an 'expert' and turns the tables on who is the one who knows more," said Kathleen Sideli, associate vice president for Education Abroad at Indiana University.

Sideli has decades of experience assisting students and their families traveling abroad. She said visiting a child studying overseas helps parents really know what the child has been experiencing. "This gives parents a fuller understanding and appreciation for the environment where the student is living," Sideli said. "This can be very helpful for family bonding."

This was true for Lisa Cannon. She had heard about the poverty in the small village of Maputsoe, Lesotho, where her daughter was a teacher. "But it was an entirely different thing to see it firsthand. It was very eye-opening," she said.

If you're considering traveling to see your student abroad, Sideli and Johnson both encourage parents to go toward the middle or end of the student's stay, when the student feels more settled and familiar with his or her surroundings.

Going at the beginning of the session to "drop off" keeps students from finding their own footing and relying on their own resources. Also, Sideli and Johnson urge parents to be respectful of the student's commitments to classes and program obligations.

Sideli notes that study-abroad programs, while more popular than ever, have been around for decades. She herself studied abroad as a student 35 years ago and says a visit by her parents and brothers still resonates within the family as a powerful and pleasant memory.

Originally published in The Plain Dealer, Spring 2009. Anne Ondrey, a free-lance writer in Chardon, is married to Plain Dealer photographer Thomas Ondrey.