10 reasons to let your child study abroad

Has your high schooler come to you asking to take a year abroad? Or your undergrad, has she said she wanted to take time away from the quad and go to Qatar? And did you hold your breath?

I get it.

When I went to my parents at twenty-one and said I was taking a semester off of school to go to Kenya, and that I wouldn’t get any college credit for it, I think it took all the energy they could muster not to chain me to the nearest post. Asking my father about his reaction recently, he took a philosophical tone: He said, “Joni, honestly, there was nothing I could have done to stop you. But, boy, did I want to.”

Spoiler alert: I am alive and well. I didn’t get malaria, I didn’t lose a limb. Actually, my time abroad was one of the most important and beautiful periods in my life. I derive constant inspiration from my photographs, journals, and memories of those months. It has been over twenty-five years since I studied abroad, and when people learn that I lived in Kenya, it is usually the thing about me they want to know more about.

Some of the ten best reasons to let OR encourage your child to study abroad:

  1. They will learn that whatever discomfort they feel or fear they have comes from within and is therefore something they can manage, if not overcome
  2. They will gain a perspective that is infinitely more global and more relevant than their peers who never leave the country
  3. Their education will be enhanced in both quantifiable and unquantifiable ways, not the least of which will be by experiencing and immersing another culture
  4. Their language skills will be enhanced if in a non-English speaking country, a tremendous benefit in our new global economy
  5. It is much harder to find a way to live abroad once one has a job, family, a mortgage
  6. Your child will have the best stories to tell, a greater sense of independence and of self-reliance
  7. You can visit them
  8. Yes, it will round out college apps and job resumes very nicely!
  9. Maybe you wished you did it, and don’t want your child to have the same regrets
  10. They will remember their experience for the rest of their lives

There are a hundred arguments against going: Cost. Distance. Potential danger. Risk of illness. Time lost at school, missed opportunities. But each of these arguments is easy to combat.

  1. Cost: Do your research. There are grants and scholarships given by aid, faith, professional, community, and academic organizations
  2. Distance: Travel is involved, and distance can seem overwhelming. But it is that distance– from you, from friends, from the familiar– that creates the atmosphere of greatest benefit and discovery
  3. Danger: This one is easy to answer, but the answer is not a happy one. The fact is, nowhere in the world is as safe as it used to be, not even college campuses or home towns. The only way we can make the world safer is to understand the people of it better, and study abroad is one way of making more global, compassionate citizens with authoritative perspective. These young people will be our future leaders– let’s give them the best shot on how to lead effectively
  4. Risk of illness: Yes, your child might get sick. But if you speak to them about taking healthy precautions, make sure they have the medications that they might need, and understand that our immune systems are built to fight, you can mitigate this risk and the concern associated with it
  5. Lost time and opportunities: This one is also easy, because study abroad doesn’t limit opportunities, it creates new ones. And as for time, a lifetime is full of it. We can always return home, and time studying abroad doesn’t mean leaving home forever

I am a parent now and if you’re wondering, would I let my daughter go to Africa? The answer is yes. My sixteen-year-old daughter spent last summer in Senegal and I asked her if she could talk to parents about encouraging their children to study abroad, what would she say? And from her lips came this profound advice: She said that moving beyond what she described as a “silk curtain” to people who seem foreign, or different, or distant, students going abroad will discover their own humanity and connection to the rest of humankind, and that would be the biggest and best lesson they could ever learn.

Joni Binder is the author and photographer of Mile 46, a book based on her experiences as an exchange student in Kenya in 1988.  In addition to over 40 breathtaking photos and journal entries from that time, Mile 46 also contains thoughts and reflections written by Binder 25 years later which add context and perspective on her Kenyan experience.