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To go or not to... for studies abroad

Parental expectations, peer pressure, keeping up with the Joneses are all the wrong reasons to pursue a programme overseas

  • For illustrative purposes only.Image Credit: Corbis
  • Rema Menon is Founder, Director, Counselling Point Training and Development, a KHDA-approved counselling centrImage Credit: Supplied picture
Gulf News

To go or not to go?” This is the question most 16-year-olds are faced with when they reach high school, a time when higher education plans are made and the career quest begins.

Until a few years ago, most expat families sent their children either to their home countries or westward to pursue higher education. With local options becoming increasingly available, tightening of emigration laws and the realisation that the dollar and pound are becoming dear in the currencies of their home countries, families are forced to rethink their plans.

In my opinion, apart from these considerations, there is one key factor that needs to be given serious thought and that is the maturity level of the young adult. When the young person is not emotionally ready for the challenges of living in a new country, they may find it intensely demanding. While making mistakes and learning from them shapes their personality and character, making him/her strong, some of these mistakes may prove to be costly.

Parental expectations, peer pressure, keeping up with the Joneses are all the wrong reasons to pursue a programme overseas (the UK, the US, Canada and Australia being top choices for UAE students).

Choices can be emotionally draining

Young adults who have had limited exposure and a cloistered existence find the transition to university overseas emotionally draining. The plethora of choices one has to make — whether in the classes one needs to enrol in or the meal plan one needs to opt for — makes it a trying time.

Young adults who are used to having decisions made for them find the choices more of a nightmare than an opportunity to learn and grow. Moreover, some students are not able to handle the freedom they enjoy.

As parents, we need to understand that each child is unique and we need to prepare them adequately before they leave the nest. Filling out the forms, crafting the essays necessary, getting all the pre-requisite tests out of the way and getting reasonable scores may help your child secure a place easily, but staying the course is the challenge. Securing a place in an Ivy League institution may give you bragging rights, but is it the right move for the young adult?

Apart from this, in some educational systems like the North American system, there is a lot of academic freedom and one can pick and choose subjects as per one’s interest and career aspirations, while in others, there is limited flexibility.

We need to factor in this feature while making the decision on where to study. Students who prefer a structured programme may find the choices mind-boggling and may keep shifting from programme to programme while others may feel confined in a straight jacket.

Individualistic approach

Last month, I read an interesting book titled American Desi. What impressed me was not the writing style but the experiences described by the author. Those situations could have been replicated in the lives of my advisees. The students who think life in America is akin to TV shows like Friends, Big Bang Theory and One Tree Hill will have to think again. Real life and reel life are different.

Universities treat young adults as adults and the spoon- feeding they are used to in school and at home is no longer a given. Students are expected to seek help whether when homesick or when they are unable to understand the educational requirements or any other challenges they may face.

As such, it can be overwhelming and bewildering for the young person. He/she would need to seek help from the professionals in the international office, or assistance from among the seniors.

Most institutions have academic advisors who help you set goals, plan your course schedule, pick and drop courses, etc making academic life easier to handle.

In parallel, there are student counsellors on campus who help deal with emotional challenges like home sickness, inability to adjust with a roommate, relationship and weight issues, to name a few. While seeking such assistance may be a cultural block, it shouldn’t be so. Such support is an integral part of growing up and will facilitate transition.

Both parents and young adults on the threshold of this momentous decision – ‘to go or not to go’ — have to examine, discuss and seek guidance either from school or outside so that crucial years are not adversely affected. There is no dearth of local options if your child is ill-prepared for life abroad. The decision has to be well thought out bearing in mind the person’s maturity level and capabilities.

The writer is Founder, Director, Counselling Point Training and Development, a KHDA-approved counselling centre based in Dubai.


Fact Box


Fast Track

In my office, I see many O level students who want to fast track their career path and enroll at local universities without completing A levels/12 years of schooling. No doubt they can join the work force sooner, but what are some of the pitfalls? If the student is not academically strong, some of them struggle in some of their classes. Those who have completed the requisite courses can ace the program but some become over confident and complacent, little realizing that the difficulty level of the programs progressively increase. Another consequence of fast tracking is that if the student wishes to pursue another programme in a Ministry approved institution in the UAE or at a University overseas, they may not meet the entry requirement. These situations are based on personal observations.


Relationship issues

Having led a protected upbringing with limited interactions with the opposite sex, Hasan was suddenly thrown into a whirl pool of new friends, new relationships, some more demanding than others, some that sapped his energy as he was unsure of the ground rules and not wanting to lose face or disappoint new found friends, took on more than he could handle. He spent more time in the emotional roller coaster battling his demons and the demands of his relationships resulting in course work taking a back seat. Grades took a beating and academic probation was the outcome – the parents were left wondering what was wrong.


Substance abuse:

As parents, we have inculcated in our young strong values and hope they will know right from wrong but an emotionally immature young person can misuse his/her freedom. We can blame it on peer influence, financial liberty or innumerable other external factors but the fact remains that the youngster may feel out of his/her depth and unclear as to how to overcome the predicament/dependence. I cannot over emphasize the importance of treating freedom, responsibly. This observation is based on a few of my cases.


Inability to adjust

Rita had gone to her home country every summer and enjoyed spending time with her extended family. However, when she decided to take up higher education in India and stayed with her loving grandparents, she was unable to adjust. Concerned about her well being, they constantly monitored her, making Rita feel stifled. Used to the comforts of her home in the U.A.E, it was difficult for her to integrate in the grand parent’s home. After a few months, she decided to move into a hostel and there she made friends and adjusted better. While wanting to go back to one’s roots is understandable, foisting a teenager on grandparents may pose challenges that affect the entire family.



9 points to ponder:

1) Should educational plans be linked to long term residence plans (Migration/jobs) the prevailing rules and job situation need to be borne in mind along with immigration policies.

2) Financial planning and realistic aspirations need to form an integral part of the planning process.

3) Young adults should be given money management skills.

4) Research on all aspects of education both home and overseas need to be given priority.

5) Societal expectation and peer pressure should not be the criteria for education overseas.

6) Individual needs and capabilities along with aspirations should form the corner stone of selection of education destination.

7) Male students over 18 years of age need to be sponsored either by an employer or an educational institution to have a residence visa. Should he return from overseas for whatever reason, he can be here only temporarily (On tourist visa).

8) Loans, if any, need to be judiciously sought so that repayment is not a challenge.

9) Parents must be prepared to support any entrepreneurial ventures.