An Interview with Kathleen O'Hara - Parent of a Study Abroad Student
Working with international students has given Kathleen O'Hara an open-minded and positive perspective on study abroad. Knowing the benefits of overseas travel from personal experience, she was thrilled when her daughter Liz Hendry decided to spend a semester in Buenos Aires. And when Liz decided to stay on for a second semester in Argentina, Kathleen understood and supported her because she had watched her grow both personally and professionally. Below, she talks about what it's like to be a parent to a study abroad student, some of the challenges she's faced in the process and her advice to others who are looking ahead to a similar journey.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
KATHLEEN O'HARA: I work as an adjunct professor teaching business communications, ESL (English as a Second Language), technical writing and marketing writing courses. Currently, I am teaching international students business communications and customer service courses. My passion is teaching international students; I learn so much about their culture and they are fabulous students. One of the reasons I am thrilled that Liz is studying abroad with CAPA is because I know it will be a life changing and mind expanding experience. I constantly witness the benefits of studying abroad through my international students.
CW: As a parent, what were some of the initial thoughts you had when your daughter Liz first mentioned studying abroad in Buenos Aires?
KO: I was excited that Liz wanted to study abroad; I knew she would love it. I also traveled a great deal as a learning and development corporate trainer and I knew the huge benefits of travel and experiencing new cultures. But as a parent, I was a bit concerned with her traveling abroad. I also was intimidated with her selection of Buenos Aires. I asked her, “Why don’t you study in Spain or England or Ireland or….” That was closed minded of me. Liz wanted to experience the Latin American culture and she wanted to explore Argentina and develop her Spanish. Her decision was the right one.
CW: How much has travel abroad been a part of your own life in the past? In what ways do you feel like your own personal experience with travel played a role in how you reacted to Liz's desire to study abroad?
KO: Travel has always played a big part in my life; as I mentioned above, I did extensive worldwide training which brought me to lovely places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and all over the US as well as to personal trips through Europe. Any time I have traveled to a new location, I believe I grew in a different direction. I am an adventurer and I think I instilled that in Liz as well. Knowing the benefits of travel and new experiences led me to be very supportive of Liz’s desire to study abroad. I became the cheerleader for it!
CW: What changes have you noticed in Liz since she left for Buenos Aires?
KO: Liz has bloomed in Buenos Aires in many ways. Even though Liz was always been very independent, I have seen her independence and adulthood take off. She has had to handle many challenges: day-to-day living in a Spanish-speaking country, entering a new school, bonding with her home stay family, converting money, understanding and respecting a new culture. Liz’s abilities have been challenged in many ways and I can honestly say the result has been amazing. She has grown into a confident young adult; I do not think this would have happened or happened as quickly at home. Liz is almost fluent in Spanish now; she lives with an amazing home stay family who has taught her so much about the culture and generosity of Argentina. She is also so positive; this, too, I think is part of the South American culture.
CW: Liz recently decided she's been enjoying her time in Argentina so much that she's going to stay on for a second semester abroad! How do you feel about that as a parent?
KO: Liz surprised me when she mentioned staying another semester…..I miss her. But this experience has been so wonderful that I worried she was coming home too soon and had more to accomplish. When she asked about it, I was positive right away. I told her the changes I have seen in her are amazing and I agreed with her that it would be wonderful to have more time in Argentina.
CW: Do you think Liz's international experience will benefit her professionally in the future? If so, how so?
KO: I definitely think Liz’s international experience will benefit her professionally in so many ways. First, her Spanish has improved dramatically; secondly, she has learned about a totally different economic system (her major is economics); and most importantly, she has learned how to succeed in a totally new environment and how to thrive. Liz is also doing an internship at a university in Buenos Aires which is related to her studies. She has met amazing people and is even more confident with her communication and self-management skills.
CW: What advice could you offer other parents whose children hope to study abroad during college?
KO: I would encourage them to be very supportive of the children’s wish to study abroad. Then I would tell them to sit back and watch them take off. This is not an endeavor for “helicopter parents”; this is for parents who want to see their children spread their wings and develop their talents.
CW: What are some of the challenges you’ve dealt with as a parent from the moment Liz brought up the topic of study abroad through the time she’s been in Buenos Aires? What would you say to other parents who are trying to cope with the distance?
KO: Probably the biggest challenges were coordination in terms of setting up bank accounts and communication. Communication has been wonderful through “WhatsApp” and there are other internet-based applications for texting, phoning and video calls. These applications allow you to stay in touch with really no cost. So many of the things I worried about in terms of communication were not a problem. The fact that we can communicate as much as we want really helped with the distance. Ironically, Liz and I have has the most wonderful long distance conversations; we miss and appreciate each other more.
CW: Why is studying abroad important?
KO: Studying abroad stretches the muscles of the young adult in many ways. First, it opens the mind. Students live in other cultures….not just study about them. Secondly, it gives them experiences that will greatly benefit their professional lives. Most importantly, it makes the student so much more independent, confident and self-actualized.