“Which student is yours?” asked our tour guide who was waiting outside for us as we finished a museum visit. I was one of the first students to make my way out of the museum and offered to help her gather up all the backpacks from the required locker room. “None,” chuckling as I said it, “I’m one of the students.” She looked at me with a curious expression and said, “Oh! I just assumed you were here chaperoning one of your kids studying abroad!” “Well,” I replied, “I am definitely old enough to be anyone’s mom – but nope – I left all my kids at home!”
She went on to ask all the customary questions. How old am I? How old is my oldest? What about the youngest? Where are all the children now? How are they surviving without mom? Interestingly enough the tour guide was only two years older than me, and she herself had two young teenagers at home. She said, “I could never be so far away from them for so long.” (I have found this to be a universal statement made my mothers everywhere who have never experienced the joy of solo travel!)
Save Your Breath – and Your Sanity
But it brought up an interesting issue that I encountered a few times while on this experience. As one of the oldest participants in the group, there were several situations where one of the younger women would ask my advice or help with something. At first I openly gave my opinion, “No, I wouldn’t go out tonight. We have to be up early tomorrow.” or “Yes, I think that outfit is appropriate for the dinner we have to attend.” But that soon turned into the following type of conversations:
- “Sarah, where’s so-and-so?” — I have no idea. Why would I?
- “Do you have so-and-so’s class work? She said she gave it to you.” — Uhhh…nope & nope.
- “Sarah, did you tell her to go this way? Because you might have given her the wrong directions.”— Also nope. She has her own smartphone!
So in quick order I stopped giving my opinions on questions where I felt responsibility was being shifted to me. Helping in a limited situation (“Can you hold this bag while I find my phone?”) vs. asking for life choices to be made (“Should I go out tonight?”) are two very different questions. One is general courtesy and helpfulness, the other type shifts the burden of responsibility off the person asking the question and onto the one that answers.
Make the Most of YOUR Trip
Just because you are an older student in the group does not mean you have to take on a parenting/chaperone role. Remember – you paid just as much to be able to study abroad as the 20-somethings did and you should feel comfortable putting your own study abroad goals ahead of the younger crowd. Once I took a step back from the group and stopped answering questions and helping with everything, the experience really opened up in a different light for me.
This was a huge change for me! I’m usually the first one to say, “Oh, I can help.” I think it’s the fact that I’ve been mothering for over twenty years and it’s just a habit to want to take over when others need help. But seriously, the other students didn’t sign up to have Mom come along for the ride and I was happy to take a step back.
But…Have Fun with Your Traveling Companions
Shifting this mindset really helped me release myself from the mothering/chaperone role and step into the role of independent student. That said, I had a lot of fun traveling with the 20-something crowd! They’re adventurous, happy, and fun to hang out with. And you will find lots of moments to impart your older-student wisdom on them. Like, when we were at a museum, and Andrew was staring at this empty display. He said, “Wonder what this is supposed to be?” I replied, “Andrew, that’s the job market for all of us when we graduate with our student debt…I mean…diplomas.” Super fun and memorable moment!
And the younger crowd can get away with things that maybe us who are speeding down the hill of mid-life might not be able to pull off. On our last day in Florence, I took an afternoon side trip with Karina and Joana to Pisa. They had a lot of fun posing with the tower…atop the fence. No way was I going to try that! I would probably have fallen off and broken a hip or something!
A Few Pointers for Older Students
So if you’re an older student thinking about studying abroad – or you’re already headed abroad – here’s some tips for those who might be worried how to handle their younger co-travelers:
- Let the younger students mess things up and figure the solutions out themselves.
- Don’t moralize their decisions. If they want to go party one night, and you think its a bad idea, remember: ultimately they are responsible for themselves.
- Don’t do their laundry – but do see if you can get them to do yours!
- Hang out with them (they’re a lot of fun!) but feel free to break off when the party heads from the Apertivo to the Discoteca. (Unless you just really love dancing with loud music and lights!)
- Don’t take their own responsibilities off their shoulders just because it’s easier for you vs. listening to them complain about it. Your own experience abroad should be YOURS – not yours-impacted-by-theirs.
If you find yourself as one of the older students in a study abroad group, the group will start to look to you as a chaperone, role model, and mentor. It’s just part of being an older student in college. Get to know your group members, enjoy your time with them, and enjoy your experience abroad. Just remember, you’re not there as a moral sounding board, caretaker, or chaperone.