Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis EDUCATION WITHOUT BORDERS

The choice to study abroad should be a family decision

Deciding to send your children to university abroad is a major life decision. It requires – among other things – resolve, financial resources and family unity. Many Argentine families struggle with the decision. Here are some reflections.

Wednesday 20 December, 2017
The decision to study abroad and to embark - or not - upon such an adventure ought to be a family decision, one thoroughly discussed and reflected upon. It should be consensual.
The decision to study abroad and to embark - or not - upon such an adventure ought to be a family decision, one thoroughly discussed and reflected upon. It should be consensual. Foto:AP

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Some years ago, I was approached by a very high-profile civic leader and entrepreneur who wished to send his daughter to study abroad. He was concerned about the social situation in Argentina. He said to me: “You must convince her to go to Boston. It’s a safe city, with many universities and opportunities.”

Upon my first meeting with the young lady and her two parents, it became clear how challenging a task that would be.

The father reiterated, in front of a mother who remained neutral and his rebellious daughter, his uncompromising wish that his daughter should apply to colleges in Boston. “I’m not going to attend university in the United States,” the youngster snapped, “all my friends are staying here and that’s what I will do.”

We spent the next few meetings going in circles. If the father said United States, the girl said Argentina. Then if he said Boston, she screamed back New York. If he said she needed to study business, she came back with art. The mother, caught in the middle, was helplessly caught in the middle.

The point of this short story is simple. The decision to study abroad and to embark – or not – upon such an adventure ought to be a family decision, one thoroughly discussed and reflected upon. It should be consensual.

The story, mind you, is more common than one might suppose. Over the years I have encountered dozens of families with a vague sense of direction. Disagreements between spouses, a parental common front that conflicts with the adolescent, even diverse alliances among a wider group of key players – including at times grandparents – are usual. 

The impending family debate heightens all emotions and radicalises positions. For all families, this is a time to convoke regular family meetings, to calmly research the issues and to reach a course of action together.

Questions

The first question I always ask my clients is why they wish to go and study abroad. Argentina offers ample quality higher education opportunities at either no cost at all or at affordable prices – why spend a fortune on something that is available right in your neighbourhood?

Be it for undergraduate or graduate purposes: what can possibly compel a young person to pack up their lives, leave behind their family and friends and travel to a place far from home?

Undoubtedly, one should have a compelling reason for undertaking such task; or else forget the whole thing altogether. Students should be armed with the belief that real education happens outside the classroom as much as it does inside. A unique programme, for example, an admired professor, a sense of adventure, a need to see the world, global networking – a desire to feel alive!

Often, it is the youngster who drives the dream but, make no mistake about it, on many occasions it’s the parents themselves who feel the need to push the dream on their children. 

Of course, there may be plenty of reasons not to choose an international education, not the least of which is financial. By comparison, higher education abroad has astronomical costs in real terms and a family must stand solidly behind the idea of funding such project. While access to financial aid and scholarships is available, families should plan ahead using realistic scenarios. I will expand on this issue in another column.

Cultural differences will also play a big part in any education sought overseas. It’s one thing is to visit, say, Chicago, it’s quite another is to move to the big, cold Windy City, arriving loaded with luggage and no return ticket. 

Students who go to live oversseas go through various stages of adjustment, yet although these times can be sometimes quite painful, they can be ultimately fulfilling. 

The toll on the family left behind, those who stay here in Argentina, can also be trying. Argentines are a family oriented and culturally centered people. 

Sometimes it is not so easy to live in Rome and act like a Roman, it seems. Customs and food and routines are very well established. When a young member of the family moves far away, there will be a disruption to the balance, it will touch different members in diverse ways. It is important that families stick together to deal with these changes.

Family discussions on the issue need to reflect all contingencies, from the financial to the emotional to the unpredictable. What happens if the child does not adjust? Who will be there for them in a moment of crisis? How does one build a solid social network of support from afar? Perhaps going to a country or area where family and friends already exist? Many families indeed choose that option. 

Despite these challenges, today universities around the globe are very much aware of these dilemmas and challenges, and they have developed extraordinary institutional support systems for international students, be it by providing legal counsel, academic support, psychological guidance and social networking opportunities. 

The final question, of course, is the big white elephant in the room... will they come back? What happens if they decide to never return to Argentina and our family? 

Dear reader, I do not have the answer to that mystery question, nor a crystal ball to see into the future. In the words of one Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolate…you never know what you are going to get.”

Happy holidays and a peaceful new year you all!

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