Your Children Are Stronger Than You Think

Sara and her mom stand side by side in front of a painting.
"My daughter returned happy, with clearer ideas about the direction she wants for her professional life."

Sara Lucia Giraldo, a visually impaired international student from Colombia, has completed both the Youth Ambassadors (2018) and the Community College Initiative programs. In this article, her mother Isabel Cristina Gaviria shares what it was like for her and her husband as they supported their daughter during her adventures in the United States.

MIUSA: How did your daughter get the idea to study abroad? You? Somewhere else?

Isabel: My daughter [Sara] started studying English when we were able to pay for the Colombo Americano institute, and with language learning came her idea of applying to international exchanges, so she sought advice at the institute with Education USA and she got it, my husband and I basically found out of everything when she won the first scholarship, because she did not like to announce her resolutions until she fulfilled them, and that was a great surprise for us.

MIUSA: How did you feel when your daughter told you that she wanted to study abroad?

Isabel: We found out about the scholarship when it was practically hers, so we were happy for that achievement, for her dedication and commitment, but also very scared and full of doubts about what this would be like for her.

MIUSA: What did you worry about and what steps did you take to stop worrying?

Isabel: We worried a lot, of course, Sara had never traveled alone and our constant presence in her life was a reality that I did not want to leave behind. I never overprotected my daughter, but at that time she was not even of legal age, she was also scared although she tried not to show it and her independence was almost nil in our environment, especially to go out alone on the streets. We were comforted by the idea that it was a short program, with other young people my daughter's age, and we received a lot of support from Amigos De Las Américas, the program's sponsor, who always tried to reassure us and make the experience pleasant and safe not only for Sara, but also for us as parents.

MIUSA: You said that the support provided by Amigos was helpful. Could you describe what kinds of support you as parents received?

Isabel: AMIGOS supported us with some talks designed especially for parents, they told us that they understood that we could be scared with the fact that our minor children traveled to another country, so they gave us information about the organization, they told us about their extensive experience providing successful exchanges for high school students, they showed us the people who would accompany our children and told us about the places where they would be, the security plans they would employ in case of an emergency and even provided us with contact telephone numbers if we needed to communicate with the program coordinators during the trip for any reason.

Regarding the Community College Initiative Program, Sara received orientation and mobility classes and even cooking classes, since they wanted my daughter to have the best possible experience during the program, and we greatly appreciate that fact. Clearly those classes were not part of the scholarship, and even so they paid for it to be possible and gave all the tools to Sara, it is very gratifying

MIUSA: What did you think she might gain from going abroad?

Isabel: I think you get a lot out of these kinds of experiences. My daughter returned happy, with clearer ideas about the direction she wants for her professional life, more skills for her personal life, she gained self-confidence, practiced English and met people from different parts of the world and learned, she arrived with the More open-minded and with many new opportunities waiting for her, in addition to the ideas she brought to continue doing community work and volunteering focused on what she likes, feminism and disability.

MIUSA: Did you provide any support to your daughter such as with choosing a program, preparing to go abroad, feeling supported while abroad or adjusting to life after returning home?

Isabel: We supported Sara as much as we could, although not with application processes, phone interviews or anything like that, since I do not speak English and we do not know much about it, but we did emotionally and personally during and after the programs, as well as ideas and thoughts that might be helpful in her admissions essays, the homework she had to do in college, that sort of thing.

MIUSA: What do you think would concern most parents of students with disabilities studying abroad, and what advice might you offer?

Isabel: I believe that the most important concerns that parents of disabled youth feel when they have this opportunity has to do with their well-being. We fear that the challenges of such an independent and demanding life will be too overwhelming for our children, especially if we feel that our own upbringing did not provide them with the necessary tools to lead fully autonomous lives. We want them not to feel excluded, not to suffer. These concerns are accentuated if our children are very young, as in my case.

My advice to the parents of future international students is to let your children live these experiences despite the fear it may cause you. Your children are stronger than you think, stronger than they think, and they can meet these challenges and more. They expect you to support them in their dreams and goals, not limit them like the rest of society does.

MIUSA: What changes have you noticed in your daughter now that she has returned home?

Isabel: I think the most important thing is that she understood that the world is huge and that it is full of people who think that our society needs a change just like her, me I had never seen my daughter so sure of herself and her convictions, before she thought that the volunteer work she did, her activism for the rights of women and people with disabilities had no impact, and she used to tell us her ideas around the dining room , but she never expressed it with more people, now she does. I think the most important thing is that these opportunities teach disabled youth that what they do matters and contributes, that their voices can be heard. My daughter is more independent and now she dares to dream like she never did.

The Youth Ambassadors Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, brings together high school students and adult mentors from countries across the Americas to promote mutual understanding, increase leadership skills, and prepare youth to make a difference in their communities.

The Community College Initiative Program (CCI), sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by Northern Virginia Community College in cooperation with the Community College Consortium, provides scholarships to spend up to one-year of non-degree study at a United States community college. Participants build technical skills and may earn certificates in their fields of study.  Through professional internships, service learning, and community engagement activities, participants strengthen English language proficiency and immerse themselves in the culture and day-to-day life in the United States. To learn more about the CCI program please visit: https://www.nvcc.edu/ccip