In four chaotic months last year, my husband and I made the whirlwind decision to pull our son out of second-year Mechatronics at a South African university and send him abroad to study at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
There was a flurry of reasons for the decision, not least the wholly unexpected arrival of an incredibly generous windfall, which helped us contemplate such a possibility.
When, as a parent, you first allow yourself to even dream of being in the position to enable a child to such a privilege, it’s hard to think past the positives:
The doors an international degree will open and expose your child to a certain standard of teaching, the networks they will forge, the experiences, adventures and challenges they will face.
But in reality, there’s a LOT you should consider before sending in their application. For us, the whole experience of planning, applying and choosing was a case of “Blink! And… WHOA, he’s gone!”
No longer a family of five for dinner, his empty bedroom, the vast distance between us left at home and him living his new university life, the inevitable financial cost (windfall or not!), the whole process left my head spinning. But, almost at the end of his first year, he’s happy and flourishing.
We (his parents and siblings) have mopped up our tears at his departure and adapted to our new reality (HOW did parents survive before the advent of WhatsApp?)
BUT – If we had it again, though, I think I’d do it differently. I’d educate myself FIRST.
Here, if you are in the lucky situation of being able to offer this opportunity to your child, are my Top 10 Tips of what to consider before taking this huge step.
1. Did I say educate YOURSELF first?
Which country, which system, which university, which degree? Those are only the first questions to ask. You need help and information to make a choice that works, not just for your child but also for your family.
Global Education represents over 300 first-class universities and colleges and runs its highly regarded events throughout May in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Zimbabwe.
2. Listen to the students’ expectations
Maxine Kruger, Counselor and Admissions Officer at Global Education, says it’s crucially important to listen to the students’ expectations and anxiety about studying abroad and leaving home.
We often tell them, “when I was at university, this is what I did.” Rather, let them create their idea of what they want. You can phrase it like this: “I am excited for you, and I hope this is everything you want.”
3. Right option for your pocket
Ensure that you have chosen the right option for your bank balance!
There are, surprisingly, many terrific opportunities in many different countries to study, for similar tuition fees that you may end up paying in SA.
Inform yourself, do the research. We discovered that Edinburgh is a costly option, but we had not factored in the Scottish system of a four-year undergraduate degree! Ouch.
4. Do psychological preparation
Heidi Sulcas, Counselor, editor of University Speaking and MD of The Learner’s Journey, makes the vital point that everyone needs to do psychological preparation.
For a parent, a child leaving home is a minefield of Empty Nest emotions, excitement for them, loss for us.
Not only does your child need to be emotionally ready to set off alone, to set up home in a strange new environment, but you will be left facing a strange phase of life too.
“It’s so exciting for them,” says Heidi Sulcas, “But feels like the end of so many things to us, parents.”
“Be kind to yourself,” says Maxine Kruger of Global Education, “It’s not easy to say goodbye either to one child or the phase of your life when you have a family when all your children are together at home. You will need to mourn that loss.”
5. Join a Facebook Group
For example, the UK-based group, What I Wish I Knew About University, is an invaluable resource for parents. It also has specific sub-groups for parents of universities you might be interested in exploring further.
There are many similar groups for parents of many universities and colleges elsewhere. Find them and join them!
6. Check the international tuition fee level
In What I Wish I Knew About University, Louise Fernet, a university advisor, suggested that parents: “Check the international tuition fee level, as it can differ greatly between universities.”
Equally, don’t be swayed by universities’ reparations and rankings. It is far more critical, with regard to the status of universities or colleges, to find an option you can afford and which offers the course and experience which fits your child.
7. Accommodation challenges
Be alert to the challenges of securing accommodation post the first year. Another parent on WIWIKAU, Laura Moffatt, noted that many landlords abroad do not like taking overseas guarantors! Leaving over summer and then coming back to find somewhere to live can cause problems.
Be prepared upfront to face this challenge. Equally, be aware of opportunities offered to international students post-university.
Some countries (Ireland is one such example) make it very easy to remain and work during the degree. This can help offset a family’s financial burden.
8. Alert yourself to local issues affecting universities
Kate Parsons, a WIWIKAU parent with kids in both the UK and US, said that she had no idea about UK universities’ rolling industrial action.
During the pandemic, her daughter studying in the UK received no pastoral care and then had to cope with ongoing strike action.
She is graduating, says Kate, being able to count the face to face weeks of tuition she has had over the three years pretty much on the one hand.
Meanwhile, a university in the States assisted her sister throughout the pandemic with food parcels, library books delivered to her door, a buddy system, assistance with finding accommodation in the community and counselling. “We only receive invoices from the UK!” Kate added.
9. Get your child thoroughly prepared
Educate your child far upfront about budgeting, housekeeping, and cooking. Ensure they are robust, street smart, independent, and tough enough to deal with the academic and social and mental challenges that will inevitably come their way. Make sure THEY want to go.
Remember that South African universities are still highly regarded and that educated South Africans are highly successful wherever they are international.
Sacrificing your family life to send a child abroad is a loss for parents. It is both beautiful and terrible.
But if your child wants to go? Get cracking on the research!