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Parents' forum on transition to university

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Parents' forum on transition to university

What do parents wish they had known before their children headed off to university in another country? What advice would they give to other parents whose children will be going through the process in a year or two? The Parents’ Forum on Transition to University, held in March at Dover Campus and open to High School families from both campuses, was a chance to hear diverse perspectives on the practical, legal, logistical and emotional aspects of transition.

All of us who raise our children overseas have weighed up at some point the opportunity cost of expat life. Of course, there are many obvious benefits—the shared adventures, exposure to new cultures, and travel to places that would have been off the charts if we had stayed back home. These are all stimulating and rewarding experiences that can turn our children into confident citizens of the world and bring families closer together. However, complications arise when Third Culture Kids (TCKs) go off to university on the other side of the world to a country that is ‘foreign’—even when they are technically its citizens. Their prior moves have taken place within the comfort zone of the family circle. The solo move to another continent and culture can bring some unanticipated adjustment issues. For parents too, this is also a time when the implications of expat life can become acutely painful, especially for empty nesters. As one mother put it, her bleakest moment was the realisation that her family ‘was being chopped up—it would never be quite the same again.’

The interactive Parents’ Forum was an opportunity to build resilience and support within our expat community. The panel of 11 parents had children in a variety of colleges and countries and a diverse set of perspectives to offer. What they had in common was the wisdom, honesty, humour and generosity with which they shared their experiences and insights. They covered a wide range of pragmatic issues, from visa applications to opening bank accounts on campus, and teaching children how to budget. They advised on when and how to get the mobile phone package and the winter wardrobe, what to buy to furnish the dorm room, and what happens to all that stuff when students need to vacate their rooms during the holidays. They talked about safety concerns and strategies for addressing them. As for the emotional issues of separation, it seemed that initially it was only the parents who were heartbroken—most children were eager to say goodbye once orientation began! Yet all the parents stressed how important it is to keep communication channels open, as their children could be vulnerable to emotional ups and downs later on, including depression triggered by SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, brought on by lack of exposure to sunlight in winter climates). Parents also shared how they coped with their own sense of loss as their children moved away. A recurring theme of the evening was that boys tended to be far less communicative than girls once they left home, yet their need for emotional support was as great. One mother of sons said, “The way they show homesickness can happen in different, subtle ways—such as getting frequent, minor illnesses. Look for signs and follow your gut.”

Parents stressed that the UWCSEA reunion in December was “hugely important” for students to reconnect with their friends. According to research on TCKs, the international school community where they spend their formative years is the one they identify with most strongly, rather than their passport country. This idea is certainly borne out by surveys with our own alumni—the vast majority identify Singapore and UWCSEA as the country and community they feel most emotionally connected to, regardless of citizenship or the length of time they have spent here. Many alumni remain deeply attached to their circle of UWC friends no matter where their paths take them, and the first reunion helps to restore their morale and sense of rootedness in a community, at a time when they may be questioning where they belong.

Surveys of our alumni suggest that while our students are generally very well-prepared academically (at least, once they have adjusted to the workload), the first year at university can involve a few ups and downs emotionally. Some degree of culture shock seems inevitable, even for students returning to their passport country. At a school like ours where diversity is celebrated, students are bonded by their cross-cultural experiences. The move to a more homogenous culture, where the social codes are unfamiliar, can make them feel lost and uncertain for a while. In addition, there are challenges with time management. Students need to learn how to organise relatively unstructured days, juggling academic responsibilities with domestic chores that may be new to them. When forced to choose between a pile of laundry that just can’t be put off any longer, and a pile of books that need to be read for a test the next morning, students can feel overwhelmed and minor problems can escalate out of proportion. One alumna remembered calling her mother at 2am, sobbing incoherently about a ‘crisis’—ants had invaded her computer on the eve of a deadline. Another wore pink tie-dye clothing for the entire first year, having learned the hard way that his red shirts could not go into the washing machine with his whites.

However, along with challenges of various kinds that they highlighted, our alumni offered lots of solutions and tips for how to settle in quickly and manage the workload, which have been shared with our outgoing Grade 12 students. Alumni also emphasised the importance of patience, open-mindedness and a sense of humour—qualities needed when engaging with any new culture. Reassuringly, while there might be hiccups along the way, things do work out and the vast majority of students end up loving their colleges by the end of the first year. How do we know that? It’s evident from the large number of graduates who come to our Alumni Fairs, excited and eager to share their university experiences with younger students.

The final comments on the Transition Forum go to the parent of a Grade 11 student: “… a very useful session … very interesting with handy tips, important reminders and setting the stage for all levels of planning for Grade 11 and 12 parents.”

Our thanks to the Dover Parents’ Association for the chance to share our alumni’s perspectives and insights at the forum, and to the parents on the panel for so generously offering their honest and thoughtful advice.

A full write up on the forum can be found on the UAC blog’s (login to the portal), including information on gap year and national service, which were also covered comprehensively in the forum.

Linda de Flavis
University Advisor
Dover Campus

Further reading on transition for Third Culture Kids

What's Next: University Advice for Expat Parents a blog by UWCSEA University Advising Department

Tina L Quick. The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (2010).

Lois J Bushong. Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile (2013).

Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit: Expat Teens Talk (2012).

Robin Pascoe. Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World (2006).

Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger. Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years (2009, Fifth Edition).

David C. Pollock and Ruth E Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Revised Edition 2009).

15 Jun 2016
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