Lessons for Parents of International Grad Students

Don Martin Dr.

During my years serving in graduate enrollment and student services, I held office hours for students. There, I met with countless international students. Many were stressed, frightened and upset - a few to the point that they needed professional or medical assistance.

Academic struggles were the primary cause of their angst. Further questioning revealed that if word of their situation reached their parents, they would be in a great deal of trouble.

I've met with thousands of parents of prospective graduate students around the world during my career. What always amazed me was the consistently strong desire these parents had to see their children succeed. In many cases parents were making huge sacrifices so that their children could study abroad.

[Learn what to consider when applying to U.S. graduate schools.]

It was heartwarming to observe this, and to witness the strong ties between family members. But sometimes I found myself communicating with parents of applicants rather than the applicants themselves.

Parents often asked about the curriculum, admission requirements, career placement information and scholarship opportunities - questions typically asked by applicants. In some cases, they would even ask for an application fee waiver or reduced tuition for their son or daughter.

It is quite an adjustment for parents to have a son or daughter travel not only far away for graduate study, but also to another country - in some cases, without returning home for two years. This cannot be easy, yet many parents support and encourage their children to pursue their educational and career goals.

[Learn how graduate schools evaluate international applicants.]

But many international students have told me that their parents do not respond well to any sort of failure. Remember that any successful person has some detours along the way, and does not do everything perfectly.

Yet at times, some parents place overwhelming pressure on their children. While you want your child to succeed, placing too much pressure on him or her to do so could actually make things worse. Focus on success, not on perfection. Let your child be human.

Remember that sometimes the greatest learning opportunities come from mistakes and errors. If we are afraid of or forbid failure, we actually create a culture where it is more likely that failure will occur.

[Allay some common international grad school applicant concerns.]

Parents can help their students by encouraging them to find the best institution or program for them.

As a dean of admissions, it was frequently evident to me that students' parents had selected the institutions to which an international student was applying. The student had no input whatsoever.

When we would inquire, either through an essay or during an interview about why the applicant had chosen our program, students would often say that their parents had chosen their list of schools.

Some of these same students came to my office hours, indicating that they did not want to be enrolled at my institution in the first place.

In some of those situations where parents had selected the programs for their children, they almost always chose the highest ranking institutions in a particular field. Long-term success in life is rarely dependent on where one attended college or graduate school.

Work with your children, not apart from them. Give them the opportunity to be involved in the selection of the graduate program they believe would be the best match and where they would like to apply. Do not encourage an unhealthy and obsessive emphasis on rankings and prestige.