Evaluations and Expectations : Tips for the Study Abroad Advisor

By: Missy Gluckmann, Founder of MelibeeGlobal.com

If you’re a study abroad advisor, you will get the magnitude of this question:

How can you collapse many days worth of information on preparing for study abroad into
your short pre-departure meeting?

One could liken covering what is vital in a pre-departure meeting to solving the Rubik’s Cube with one arm tied behind your back. It seems to be a mission impossible!

Students on lecturerThe reality is that there is simply too much to cover and increasing pressure to talk about logistics of getting from point A to point B. (I won’t even get into the “necessary” paperwork that has to be checked before departure.) Couple that with the fact that pre-departure meetings are often scheduled during a busy time of the academic year and students typically don’t read the detailed packets of information that are thoughtfully provided, and you can be left feeling rather defeated in your role as a study abroad advisor.

Ideally, the goal is to set expectations and to transfer knowledge about culture. With the advent of open source evaluations, the advisor’s role of inspiring students to carefully consider what to expect when they’re abroad becomes much easier.

Perhaps Terrell Owens’ quote best sums up the value of expectations:

“If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed.”

Or at the very least, one hopes that your students will have a much better idea of what they’re stepping into!

Here are 3 steps to guide study abroad advisors in setting cultural and programmatic expectations for study abroad students:

1) Look to the past, first.
You’ve heard the expression, ‘you have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going’. This applies to setting expectations for study abroad too. Through the abroad101.com website, you can look up a specific program and read comments related to each category (such as housing, safety, food, etc.) as an initial starting point. What common concerns or feedback have students shared year over year via evaluations? Where have they rated fewer stars? Have they consistently commented about differences in housing and the type of food available at self-contained campuses abroad? Are there concerns about socializing with locals? Past evaluations will quickly surface common categories that students have felt motivated to share specific feedback about. These categories can translate into a roadmap for areas of focus in your upcoming pre-departure meeting, as these are the “hot buttons” that have come up time and time again, according to your customers (students). By looking to the past, we can see where we can set better expectations for the students (and their parents too).

2) Glean insights
Now that you know where to focus, you’ll need to carefully consider what students are saying about these “hot button” topics. Are the comments “one offs” or is there a pattern? Was the student particularly “picky” or was the feedback ubiquitous and verifiable?

I researched evaluations from one summer program in Quito, Ecuador – a place that I’ve been to twice – that carries a serious reputation for being unsafe. Here are a couple of comments that allow us to easily address expectations of safety :

“There is an overall inevitably high safety risk in Quito, however, I was
fine having taken proper precautions.

Another student candidly notes:

“Americans were definitely targeted but generally just for petty theft, nothing violent. I had my purse slashed and wallet stolen. A friend had his pocket slashed and wallet stolen. Both were on crowded city buses. However, these were the only incidents our group had, probably because we were given a very thorough briefing on safety. A group from another school that we encountered at one point said half of their students had been the victims of petty theft.”

These types of comments are incredibly valuable because they provide REAL accounts about what can happen in Quito. This also provides an opportunity to remind students that petty theft happens in their home country as well as in Western Europe (for example, my sister’s camera was stolen in a movie theater in Paris, France.) Theft happens. Setting expectations of how to avoid it by sharing comments like these is priceless. It opens the dialogue about what to pack (jewelry is completely unnecessary) and how to carry what you bring (put your money in a front pocket, skip the wallet and pocketbook, carry a slash proof travel pouch, the risk of taking crowded buses vs. traveling on public transportation during off peak hours).

Bold, truthful statements will help students (and parents) to set realistic expectations. They’re the kind of banter that is not included in marketing brochures, for obvious reasons, but the type that sincerely and authentically inform.

3) Tap into Culture
If we carry on with the example of safety in Quito, we step into a beautiful opportunity to create dialogue about culture. If we don’t, students (and parents) may be left with the impression that Ecuadorians are perpetual thieves or that you cannot step out of your homestay without losing your wallet.

By taking time to share the economic realities of Quito, students will have a better understanding of the WHY behind the expectation you’re setting. As Rebecca Adams de Garate, co-founder of El Nomad, explains “Minimum wage in Ecuador is a little over $300 per month. If the household has only one working parent, several children and earns only Ecuadorian minimum wage, pickpocketing is an easy way to make money. Things like smart phones, tablets and digital cameras are very expensive in Ecuador, so there is a very active black market for such stolen goods, especially in Guayaquil and Quito.” Improving expectations and providing the cultural realities – now you’re not only preparing – you’re truly educating!

For those of you who do not have a large enough study abroad population to host a group pre-departure meeting or you recruit students from many schools across the country, one solution for enhancing expectations through evaluations is to pull together links from several abroad101.com reviews and share them (by category, such as housing or safety) to include in your communication to students – whether it be a newsletter, a virtual pre-departure program, or via a PDF of your pre-departure materials.

No matter the method, setting expectations will make for a more smooth landing for everyone involved in the program – administrators, faculty, host country staff/homestay families and host country nationals, parents – and of course, the students!
About the Author:

Melissa Gluckmann, contributor to the Studyabroad101 Blog and founder of Melibee GlobalMissy Gluckmann is the Founder of Melibee Global, which aims to elevate the discussion about education abroad, culture, diversity and the lifelong path to global citizenship by offering trailblazing tools, speakers and professional development for the global education and travel communities. Raised in New York, Missy has lived abroad three times and traveled to dozens of countries. Missy currently resides in North Carolina and experiences culture shock there on a daily basis! She can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.