Ensuring that a student knows what to expect when they arrive in a foreign country to start a period of study is an important aspect of any agency’s counselling service. It is in no-one’s interest for students to return home early after an unhappy experience overseas and for this reason many agencies now provide specific pre-departure orientation sessions for their clients, and clients’ parents, in order to ensure that students know how to deal with any problems or cultural differences they may encounter.
The scale and type of orientation sessions offered by agents differs greatly between countries as does the age of students going overseas and the types of courses studied. “Preparation workshops for international students in Brazil is almost an unwritten law,” says Ricardo Peixoto from Bridge Cultural agency in Brazil. “Our agency focuses on language programmes as well as high school programmes. Both demand a specific type of workshop as the ages of the participants are different as well as their duties as international students.”
In agency markets where clients tend to be older, pre-orientation sessions are not as vital. Wolfgang Mandl from Flamenco Sprachreisen in Austria does not provide orientation sessions for his clients as most of them are over 17 years of age and are studying on short-term courses in Europe. “For younger people,” he says, “we assist them at the airport, provide them with written information which indicates various aspects of travelling address, family, local sights, local food, differences in families etc and always advise them to accept local cultures but feel free to contact their guide, school or us if something is not OK.”
At agencies where clients are likely to be embarking on long-term studies in destinations that differ widely in their cultural and academic expectations, orientation sessions may include personal interviews with students and their parents, and some agencies provide group courses for all clients about to travel overseas. “We have common sessions for all students and separate sessions for individual students,” notes Kunnuparambil Punnoose from Education Abroad in India. “Since we [have] studied, lived and worked in the UK, we try and cover all areas of importance. We give emphasis to academic obligations, social behaviour, legal responsibilities [and] personal safety.”
High school clients at Bridge Cultural agency in Brazil receive a very detailed pre-departure package to ensure they are psychologically equipped to deal with the new experiences awaiting them. They attend a workshop where they undertake activities prepared by psychologists and also get to meet former exchange students. Once students have completed a number of activities, some of them in English, they are profiled according to their personalities. “The profiles are divided into three main groups: outgoing, bashful and special care,” says Peixoto. “For each profile there exists a specific orientation [package]. Overall, our preparation of high school students consists of four steps: explanation of the programme; rules and basic characteristics of the country; group workshop at a farm, smaller group meetings divided by student profile; and individual meetings with parents and student,” he says.
Hearing about personal experiences of studying abroad is often an important part of an orientation programme. Cris Pessuti from Melbourne Languages International in Brazil says, “We put students in contact with [the] previous students we have and others who are still abroad so that the newcomer feels more confident about the whole situation.” The agency also offers some language help, he says. “We teach essential pre-departure English to students, when that is needed [covering] immigration, customs [and] airports.”
Bulent Peker from UKLA Abroad in Turkey says that their orientation session for students occurs after all other procedures have taken place. “Sessions include travel tips, cultural behaviour, advice in critical situations, general cultural differences and challenges,” he says. “Sessions are also combined with some simulations [of situations] students might encounter [whilst abroad].”
Common problems experienced by students while settling into a new country differ according to nationality. Roberto Passarelli from ICL - StudyNet agency in Brazil says, “The weather and the food work hard towards making our [students] homesick, especially if they leave Brazil during our summer time and arrive in their country of destination in winter time.”
Expectations regarding accommodation and general living arrangements are also areas that many students find difficult to adjust to when living overseas. Elif Oltulu from Foreda Study Abroad and Tourism Agency in Turkey says, “I think the accommodation is the most important thing for students. In general they hope to find their house abroad. They are very young and without experiences so they know only their family and friends and not the real world.”
Annette Duerdoth, High School Program Director at Interstudioviaggi in Italy, agrees that settling into accommodation can be the most difficult thing for students. “Not all students are prepared to do what is asked of them ie. to leave their ‘Italianness’ in Italy and dive into a new culture. In our orientation, we try to explain that the differences are what makes the programme, not the similarities!”
Travelling overseas for study purposes can be one of the most challenging and exciting experiences of a student’s life and a good pre-departure orientation session should help students see that academic
and cultural differences are all part of the fun not to mention an integral part of the overall experience. A lot of agencies are beginning to see the benefits of offering such sessions prior to departure. Passarelli believes them to be vital for the success of some students’ trips overseas. He relates, “Since we started the orientation sessions, the number of students who returned to Brazil [early] has decreased a lot and last year we had only one female student who came back one week prior to the end of her programme.”