Think about when you were a teenager. Chances are, around that time, there was something that always stood as a signifier for growing up. For many people, that signifier was the freedom to be able to go places and do things without your parents being around. If you lived in the suburbs, maybe it was going downtown. Maybe for some people it was something as simple as spending the night with friends without having a grownup around. It was always exciting and heady.
But mixed in with that excitement was always a touch of nerves. What if something goes wrong? What if we order a pizza and don’t have enough money, or get lost downtown, or accidentally set the cat on fire? With independence comes a million tiny doubts, papercuts in the mind, that are hard to stop thinking about.
Now imagine that your biggest fear is more than the monster in the movie coming to life? And imagine that you aren’t just going downtown, but leaving the state, the country, crossing an ocean, traveling over thousands of unseen miles to land in a strange country, far away from any support or social safety net you had ever known. Imagine doing this at 14.
Brave, But Still Human
Many of us experienced studying in foreign countries in college, but by the time that semester rolled around, we had for the most part experienced independence in the dorms or off-campus housing. And while few would confuse a college dorm with the respectable domicile for maturity, we were able to get used to fending for ourselves. And anyway, the huge majority of students attend college in their state– less than 200 miles from home. That’s a bit of a hike for a load of laundry…but it is doable in a pinch.
But, by and large, the international student is going to be a teenager, often leaving home for the first time, and traveling to a strange country. If you are going to be generous and kind enough to open your doors to them, and take in an international student to live with you, chances are you’ll be impressed by their bravery, but may confuse that amount of courage with a complete lack of fears. That isn’t the case. Here are a few of the main fears that being dislocated can bring, and how you can help.
What if something happens to my family?
This is a big one. A fear that anyone has when being separated from loved ones is the painful and inchoate ache that something might happen and you won’t be there. For kids, this is especially true, as their fear is combined with a sense of powerlessness. You can imagine what the barriers of continents and language gaps can do to that. If your international student ever expresses worries about such a thing, of course you should try to comfort them and let them know that such fears are normal, but their absence doesn’t increase the odds of disaster. And let them know that if they have to leave in a hurry, that is always possible. Airlines can be surprisingly understanding in times of crisis. Remind them that they aren’t trapped.
What if I can’t make friends?
Here’s something everyone feels, no matter where you are, but the teenage feeling of isolation is of course magnified by distance and heightened by linguistic barriers. It is important to remind them that this is universal, and that you yourself felt it at one point. Maybe break out an old yearbook. Remember, just the act of honest and friendly communication with your international student will help break the understandable fear that they’ll be treated as a curiosity rather than as a person.
What if I like being away too much?
This is kind of strange, but not uncommon. There are people who thrive in new environments, and maybe find a strength they didn’t know they had. For older people, this can be liberating, but for teens, especially teens that come from a more traditional culture, that can bring with it feelings of guilt, like they are betraying their heritage. If this is ever expressed, make sure you let them know that they aren’t turning their back on family or country, that liking one thing doesn’t exclude liking or forgetting another, and that the whole point of the voyage is to become a more rounded individual. There’s no need to feel guilty for enjoying something that is good.
So those are just a few of the fears. We’ll be doing many more articles on these and more fears, including the difference in classroom expectations, making your family proud, finding new friends, living with a host family, and even basic language issues. You’ll recognize them all as universal, some things that are felt by everyone. Understanding that these aren’t idiosyncratic to a home country, even if they are filtered through local cultures, is key to making sure that your international student can talk to you, can find a sympathetic ear, strong advice, and the ability to persevere through the rougher waters. Just imagine that your were in their shoes, and tell them what you’d need to hear.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.