Beyond The States
Beyond The States
Fostering Student Independence

No doubt, being independent is one of the most important qualities needed if you plan to study in Europe. Navigating in a foreign country, on your own, demands a large degree of self-reliance and pliancy, and it’s important to appreciate that colleges in Europe do far less hand-holding when compared to those in the states. 

This topic never goes out of style, and is always shifting and fluid with the culture, such as now in the wake of the pandemic. With that in mind, Jenn revisits and updates a past podcast episode from 2018, geared toward parents, titled Fostering Student Independence. Listen in on how Jenn has helped her own children develop these skills over the years, and get ideas for things you can do at home, and while traveling, for your own family.

“Many of us underestimate the resilience our kids have, but by underestimating this and trying to protect them from uncomfortable situations we prevent them from developing more resilience and independence that’s going to help them through life.” –Jenn

Podcast Transcript –

Intro: You’re listening to the Beyond the States podcast with Jenn Viemont. Did you know that you can go to Europe and get your entire degree taught in English for less than one year of tuition at many American schools? Jenn will take you on a deep dive into the many benefits and options around English-taught higher education in Europe, helping to make the possibility less foreign.

Jenn Viemont: I’ve been thinking a lot about independence lately, and how different it is these days than when I was growing up. So my dad and his brothers, they grew up in both Sendai, Japan and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So when I was growing up, one of my uncles and his family, and my grandparents still lived there. So when I was about 12, and my brother was nine, my parents sent us there to visit them. You might have heard me talk about this before, but bear with me. So we flew internationally there by ourselves without the unaccompanied minor sign around our neck, we changed airports. And then, when we got to Tokyo, we had to find our way by ourselves to the bullet train to take to Sendai where our grandparents would meet us. 

It’s really hard to imagine this happening these days. In fact, Ellie’s doing a group trip through GLA, which I’ll talk about in just a little bit. She’s going to Thailand, and parents of the trip are trying to coordinate flights with others. They don’t know these people, they’re just trying to coordinate with other parents through a group chat so that their kids won’t be alone on the last leg or two of the flight. And these are 15 to 18 year olds. Actually, one of the parents in the group was trying to find out if she could get the unaccompanied minor service for her 15 year old. I cannot imagine anything more humiliating for a 15 year old. You guys, my brother and I managed to navigate this. There was nothing traumatizing about it beyond the fact that my brother thrived on embarrassing me with you know, things like making farting sounds behind me as I walked. Actually, you know, 35 years later, more than 35 years later, and he still thrives on this. 

So I was thinking about this experience for a few reasons. One is that I, along with much of the country, I’m loving the Netflix show called “Old Enough.” So this was a series that was popular in Japan. They just brought us Netflix here and it shows little kids. I mean, we’re talking about two and three year olds going on errands in Japan by themselves. And I’m not talking about, you know, getting a cup of sugar from a neighbor. I’m talking about getting five different items from the fish market, and crossing a busy street on the way, or figuring out how to pull a huge cabbage from a field, because one little girl didn’t see that her grandma had already picked one and left it for her. It’s absolutely incredible. 

So we went back to Japan to stay with my uncle when our kids were little. And Ellie was about five; I guess she was in kindergarten then, and I remember seeing kids younger than her by themselves on the train. Some of them would have a little notation on the little caps that they wore that showed the stop that they were supposed to get off on. And that way, if they fell asleep, or they were distracted or whatever, another passenger would alert them or wake them up so they got off on the right stop. 

So whether or not two is too young to run to the fish market or not isn’t the point I want to make here. It’s that it’s a lot harder to instill this independence at our kids here than it is there. And actually, in these days than it was, you know, a few decades ago. 

Here’s an example. Ellie recently turned 18. So our dentist, we’ve seen him for many, many years and absolutely trust him, referred her to a specific oral surgeon to discuss getting her wisdom teeth out. So as far as I was concerned, there was no reason for me to go to this consultation. Ellie’s 18, it was a consultation. A person who we trusted referred her to this person. So if he said to get them out, then we’d schedule it, whether I was there or not. So Ellie’s at this appointment by herself, and he insists on calling me to tell me the same thing he told her, which is that they need to come out. But I mean, the thing is, okay, fine, call me. I didn’t mind taking the time, but what message does this send to Ellie about her capability to take care of herself?

Another difference I’m seeing is around communication from universities. Not once in the three years Sam has been studying in Europe have I received parental correspondence from any of Sam’s universities. Even the invoice goes to him and he assists in that to me. Now with COVID in and such, some communication would have been nice, but it went directly to him, and it was up to him to pass it on to me as he deemed fit. He is seen as the adult in that situation. So Ellie just recently accepted her spot at NC State, and I am bombarded with emails almost daily. And I’m consciously trying to step back and have Ellie take charge of the process herself.

So the topic of independence has been on my mind. And because of this, I’m replaying an episode from 2018 with specific suggestions today, but there are a couple of additions I want to make before we get to that. In the episode we’re about to play, we talk about independent international experiences, and there are a few companies that I didn’t mention in that one I want to tell you about. So at least on programs through GLA, it’s Global Leadership Adventures. And their company models their programs from the Peace Corp, but of course, they’re modified to make them age appropriate. And she had initially signed up a couple of years ago for a trip to Thailand where they spend a week at an elephant sanctuary. And this is a real legit one, not one of those you hear about where, you know, they’re abusing the animals for tourists. And then, they spent a week teaching English in a Northern Thai village. 

And that was canceled of course due to COVID. And then last year, it was running again, but had this extensive quarantine period. So last year, she did a program with them in the Galapagos Islands, that involved working with conservationists at a tortoise refuge center. And then she’s making it to Thailand this year, and she’s just thrilled. We have another member whose son use Carpe Diem for a gap year. And he was also able to get college credits from Portland State University with this program, which is nice. He was in India, spending time on a permaculture camp on the Indian Ocean. And then he spent the second semester in North Bali, working with a nonprofit building artificial reefs. And I have to tell you, neither this student or Ellie plan to pursue related fields in college, but having that firsthand experience really affects how they see their role as it pertains to protecting the earth and their role in the world. 

Now, both of these programs are fairly pricey, and I have heard about a program called Workaway, which is much less expensive. It would be best for like a gap year, not during high school because well, you have to be 18. And also, it’s not a structured program like the others. But there are opportunities that are not as pricey. So maybe these types of experiences aren’t feasible, but you do travel as a family. So I talked about in the episode allowing our kids to have independence when we travel, even if, and actually maybe, especially if it leads to mistakes or problems. And I want to give you an example of this.

A few years ago, I think Ellie was a freshman, she came with me on a Beyond the States trip. We were in Vienna, and I had a meeting at a university after we had lunch together. So we took the train to the meeting so she’d know how it worked; you know, the stops and the protocol. So she was going to take the train back to the Airbnb and wait for me there. 

So every country does public transportation a little differently. In most cities in the US, they’re like turnstiles or gate type things, and you have to enter your ticket to get through. And this is the case in some places in Europe too. But in other places, it’s the honor system, and in some places, you have to scan your card at a designated place when you get on or off, off the train. So when I’m taking public transportation for the first time, if I haven’t researched the system, I generally look around and see what other people are doing. 

We were going to lunch that day, and we were in a little bit of a rush. So we got our tickets, and I looked around, and I didn’t see any sort of a scanner. I didn’t see anybody doing anything special with their ticket, so I assumed it was the honor system. First problem. 

So after we have lunch, Ellie gets her ticket and gets on the train. A few stops in, she’s stopped by the Transit Police and they’re asking her for a ticket. So she showed it to them, you know, thinking she’s fine. And they told her it wasn’t valid because it wasn’t scanned. So she explained that we just got to the city the day before and she didn’t know, but they told her that she would be fined because, “In Austria, we have rules.” 

Now Ellie is my rule follower child. So this definitely did shake her. She also didn’t have €100 with her, clearly. And they were at her stop so they got off the train and they detained her there, you know, on the platform. And she called me crying, of course. I tried to talk to them over the phone, but they were kind of jerks to me too. So I told them I was on my way. Fortunately, I had some time to kill before my meeting, just sitting outside reading, enjoying the beautiful day in Austria, but, you know, jumped to it, hightailing it over there. Ellie’s crying in the station with them, and eventually they just let her go before I get there. 

So I talked to people in Vienna about this when we were there, and it sounds like some people go their entire life without seeing the ticket checkers. But they’re known to be really difficult, and they often target tourists as well. So was this an extremely uncomfortable situation for Ellie? Absolutely. Was she ever in physical danger? No. Was she traumatized? No. In fact, I asked her if she wanted to come back with me and wait on campus while I had the interview, and she opted just to head to the Airbnb by herself. And you know what? She now always checks the public transportation ticket validation rules when we’re in a new city.

That’s just to say I think many of us underestimate the resilience our kids have. And in underestimating this and trying to protect them from uncomfortable situations, we prevent them from developing more resilience and independence that’s going to help them through life. So we’re going to take a quick break and come back with an episode that discusses specific ways we could help them with this.

Testimonial: Hi, I’m Maclan and I’m in my second year studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Before I began my degree, my sister started university in the Czech Republic, which inspired me to explore my options of going to school in Europe. But I was still lost at what exactly I needed to do in order to attend university abroad. This is where Beyond the States stepped in. My sister had previously worked with them. They built a best fit list of universities for her to consider. Over time, Beyond the States has expanded its options. I was able to take advantage of the personalized approach to explore what I found most useful. I was a part of the first On Your Mark master class where I learned what I found to be most exciting to study, where my interests aligned, and what universities I was most interested in. Before the master class, I was lost and overwhelmed with what to focus on. Beyond the States gave me a sense of direction. Before, I was only following my sister’s path. Through their help and support system, studying in Europe was able to become a reality for me. The class is offered three times a year and fills up every time. Check the show notes for more information and to sign up for the next session.

Jenn Viemont: We recently heard from a listener who told us that her son had always planned to do a gap year before college. She saw benefits around the gains and independence a gap year can provide, not to mention the opportunities for travel, and she was wondering how taking a gap year works with admissions in Europe. Her question got me thinking about independence as a whole. It’s definitely one of the qualities that’s needed if you plan to study in Europe. I feel like my kids have a lot fewer natural opportunities that help them become independent than I did when I was growing up. Part of this is a difference in the environment. I grew up in a city, which allows at least for independent mobility, either walking or public transportation, which my kids don’t have.

The other hindering factor, though, is just the parenting culture these days. There’s an expectation for involvement well beyond that of my parents when I was growing up. When you choose not to participate in that culture, even if you’re doing so for conscious reasons, it’s easy to doubt yourself. I’ve told this story before, probably in a blog, but one of the things we liked when we bought our house is that it’s walking distance from the elementary and middle school. It’s right around half a mile, there are sidewalks all the way, lots of people walking, and there’s a crossing guard at the one busy street. My son went on to middle school when my daughter was in third grade, and I had her walk to and from school by herself. I mean, not really by herself, it just wasn’t with me. She still had friends that she met up with along the way, but she was literally the only kid who didn’t have an adult walking with them. Even now, I see parents walking with fifth graders, and even one who walks from middle school or to school. 

Now I don’t think that all these parents are walking with their kids because they doubt their own kid’s ability. Maybe the parents are walking so they can talk with other parents. Maybe it’s a nice time to chat with their kids without electronic distractions. Maybe they have to walk the dog, anyway. However, the reason we want our kids to be exposed to opportunities for independence is so that they can gain confidence in their abilities. Walking half a mile in a very safe area without adult supervision is a great place to start. The coordination and supervision of their life starts really young, with things like organized playdates, and it continues on through their lives. One would hope that by high school, we could start to ease up and allow them to learn from their mistakes. But academically, the stakes are so high that many parents feel that they have to stay totally on top of things, because mistakes can prevent future opportunities for your kids.

So if you listen to our admissions podcast, you know this is not the case for kids applying to school in Europe. A lot of things that matter in the admissions process here don’t matter there. Furthermore, as I mentioned, it’s super important for kids to have successfully experienced independence before they go. As parents of kids who are planning to go to school in Europe, we both can and should do what we can to foster independence. 

So let’s talk about things we can do for this. Well, we’ll start by talking about things that can be done locally, or at little to no expense. An after school job is a great way to develop these skills. When I was in high school, I worked at the Gap. My son Sam is now working as a cashier at a grocery store. Do either of these jobs have anything to do with our future careers? No. Nor were they about enrichment. But the skills they teach that pertained to independence are huge. Sam has had to be a lot more conscious about time management, for instance. He has to plan ahead for assignments if he knows he’s working. He’s also learning to manage his money and learning that if he uses all of his check buying excessive amounts of Nutella, which he has, he won’t have money to use when he hangs out with his friends. I also think that a big part of independence is knowing how to get your needs met using resources and asking for help. This is really hard for him academically, but he has no choice but to do so at work. He has to ask about things like his schedule, taking time off and such. I’m hopeful that the skill will transfer over into him feeling more comfortable seeking academic resources when he’s needed, because you have to start somewhere. 

Another somewhat easy thing to do is to assign cooking nights. You can have your teenager be responsible for the planning, the shopping — with a budget — and cooking once a week or so. This one is particularly important since college students in Europe cook for themselves a lot more than they use cafeterias. The use of public transportation is another important independence-related skill. If you live in a city, your teenager is — they’re probably already well versed in this and you can fast forward a little bit. If not, you need to be a little bit more creative. Maybe you live outside of a city or you have a trip planned where this could be practiced. The inclination would be to go to a city and teach them how to use it, how to navigate the whole system. But I encourage you to take it a step further; further takes him to a city and try to teach him. I can tell you, I’d see a lot of eye rolls and I know moms. 

So here’s what I suggest; write up a list of resources and information about public transit in that city where it’s going to be practiced. Maybe it’s a website with a route planner, maybe it’s about an info about which app on their phone would give them a route. I really suggest that you let them know that it’s crucial that they know the last destination of the train or bus that they want to get on so that they know they’re going the right way. Then, when you get to whatever city it is, tell them where they need to get you. Now, in an ideal world, you’d be able to just go to that destination and wait for them to get there. But I know that a lot of you wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. The main suggestion I make here is that you don’t correct any mistakes they make or give them any help. Let them figure it out. Even if it means getting on the wrong train the first time. If you help, it’s not going to provide the confidence that they need. If they asked for help, you can remind them that there are probably other people in the station they could ask. If you have the opportunity to do this in a foreign country, all the better. When Sam and I recently were in The Hague, I’d tell him the place and time he needed to meet me, and he’d figured out how to get there and what time he needed to leave.

So navigating air travel is another thing you can do. If your teenager doesn’t have the opportunity to fly alone, put them in charge of getting you to the correct gate at a layover, using the same rules you did for public trans. If they do have the opportunity to fly by themselves, all the better. Sam recently had to navigate his first solo international layover. It was a tight connection and I was more nervous than he was. It went fine and I had to keep telling myself that even if he missed his flight, we could have figured it out.

So most of these are activities that are still guided by us as parents. What’s even more powerful are those that don’t involve us. Sometimes, it’s a simple trip to stay with family or friends who live elsewhere, and with our teen going without us. Sometimes, it’s a sleepover camp experience. But what I think is really incredible are the opportunities that also incorporate some sort of international exposure. As a matter of fact, I’ve met a lot of American students in Europe, both Beyond the States members and those through my school visits, and I’m having trouble thinking of any of them who haven’t had an international experience through something like this. There are a ton of options that range in cost from free and affordable to very expensive, and also vary from programs that are just a couple of weeks long, to a summer, to a full academic year. But I do want to go through a few of these options with you because they’re really exciting. 

So the first one that comes to mind is the Rotary Youth Exchange. This is a really low cost option. It’s usually just travel costs and spending money, and they send kids for a homestay in over 100 countries. And this range — they have programs that range from short term to a full academic year. Another option is something called the NSLI program. It’s run by the State Department and they have summer and academic year programs to encourage critical languages. They have programs for Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Korean. And kids stay in a homestay situation and they have intensive language training, full scholarship. So it’s a free program, but it’s really, really competitive and hard to get into. Often, there are trips through schools as well. If your teenager is taking a language in school, sometimes the French club will take a group of students somewhere, or if they’re in an AP class, sometimes they have opportunities to do that as well. And these are often affordable options with ways to fundraise for them. It’s generally through just the language you’re studying at school so it’s somewhat limited, but still a great opportunity.

So there’s also this great program I recently heard about from one of our members called Projects Abroad, and they have programs that are two or four weeks long where teenagers go and do volunteer programs in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Madagascar, Mexico, Mongolia — don’t worry, I’m at M, so I’m halfway through — Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Samoa, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo and Vietnam. Man, okay! So they have programs in all of those countries. And the options include working with kids, teaching English, conservation work, sports coaching, archeology work, building, forming and work with the arts. So not only does this provide a really incredible international experience and international exposure, but many high schools do have a volunteer requirement for graduating. And this also can meet that. 

So there’s also a program called CIEE — a company called CIEE, and they have options for programs that focus on language and culture, on service and leadership, and on global discovery. Sam is actually doing one this summer in Rabat, looking at Arabic language and culture, but they also have opportunities for Spanish in Spain, Chile and the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Peru. Italy, you can study Italian. Germany. They also have options for Japanese and Mandarin language learning as well. So they have also, in addition to the language and culture programs, they have these really cool options like Botswananan or Australian wildlife conservation. Or there’s a program on promoting children’s rights and education in Ghana, or the Dominican Republic. They have a world government program in Belgium and an environmental awareness program in Thailand. That’s just a few of them.I mean, there are a number of other options too, but just to give you a little taste of their options. 

Another option I’d like to tell you about, also one of our members told me about, is called Where There Be Dragons. And it sounds really incredible. I wish they had adult programs. They have programs in Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Laos, Madagascar, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Peru, Senegal and Thailand. So when Theo, the member that I work with who was talking about it, he talked about how great it is because they really emphasize getting to know the people and the cultures and appreciating these huge differences. So here’s an example. They have a program called the Silk Road, and in it, the way they describe it is that you will explore the diversity of China’s people and cultural transition. Live with yak herding families on the Tibetan Plateau, trek through — a word I can’t pronounce — Krygyz village, high in the Pamir Mountains, learn about their Krygier culture and the history of Islam in China. And I know I butchered some of those words and I apologize for it. But how cool is that, that you could live with a yak herding family in Tibet. I mean, that’s just incredible to me. 

And they also have language intensives. They have peacebuilding and conservation in Cambodia. Here’s a really cool one called community and conservation in Indonesia where you live with sea nomads, harvest coffee, and learn about efforts to protect the world’s most extraordinary coral reefs. So do you see why, as I was reading through this, I wish they had adult options? I’ll tell you this, every student I’ve talked to who’s done these high school international experience programs, whether it’s Rotary, or a trip through school, or you know, living with sea nomads, they’ve come back completely changed, not just in terms of independence and confidence, but with a thirst for more international experiences, as they’ve really had this incredible experience of life as a global citizen. 

So back to the original question from our listener about gap years. One benefit of doing a gap year is that it opens up Sweden as an option. In Sweden, you can’t apply during your senior year of high school. Most universities don’t allow you to defer admissions in Europe, but you can still apply during the gap year. So there’s nothing that would prevent you from going to school in Europe if you do a gap year. But one reason students have done gap years in the past is that it does provide this opportunity to travel and experience the world. As a student in Europe though, it’s easy to hop on a train and be in another country in just a few hours. Your classmates are from all around the world, so visiting their hometowns with them is an easy possibility. 

Further, doing a semester abroad is common and sometimes required, like studying abroad while you study abroad. The possibilities here include schools throughout Europe with the Erasmus program, and even different continents through bilateral agreements with no additional tuition costs. So even if our kids aren’t at the optimal level of independence when they leave, they’re going to gain it quickly. They’re gonna have to cook their own meals, cafeterias aren’t open every meal of the day and week. They’re gonna have to deal with getting their residence permit, dealing with language barriers and seeking out resources as there’s not as much spoon feeding as there is here. These are the opportunities that will really allow them to grow and to develop the skills that they need to be successful in life. I’m really excited by the opportunities for my own children for years in this. Thanks for joining.