Your gap year program sent you packing lists, visa and immunization requirements, invitations to connect with other students on the trip, required pre-trip reading and more. Maybe there is even an orientation or meet up for families.
But is there a prescription for staying in touch with your family and friends when you’re abroad?
Here’s a quick checklist with a few tips for keeping those relationships alive for when you come back:
1. Think about the important people in your life
Maybe it’s just your parents. Maybe you want to stay in touch with your siblings, or your grandparents, your high school friends, the kids you worked with at your after school program.
Whatever the case, you may be looking at different expectations from each of them. Think about what it would mean to lose contact with them and try your best to rank them by priority, as strange as that might sound. Who must you absolutely not lose contact with?
2. Consider their lifestyles and flexibility
While you’re abroad, your friends’ and families’ lives will go on. They’ll be working, taking classes, going about their lives in very different ways. Your friends might be sleeping in, but busy all night. Your parents might be free in the evenings, but busy in the early mornings getting ready to start their day.
You’ll most likely be operating in different time zones, with great distances between you. The digital age has made communication immediate, but that doesn’t mean your family might not be sleeping when you send that emergency text to re-activate that frozen credit card account.
3. Decide on a communication platform
Snapchat. Your grandparents might be very important to you, but if your plan was to Snap the whole adventure, you might have to convince them to get on Snapchat, or come up with another plan. On the other hand, Snapchat offers an incredibly easy sharing experience in a kind of gritty, home-made format. It can make your friends and family feel like they’re here for the ride.
Email is great because it can be opened at one’s own convenience. You just send it out to everyone on an email list you’ve built, and they read it whenever they like. You can attach files of course, and write stories. People like stories.
Video chat. Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Facetime — these are all great ways to call people and video chat across the world. However, they each have their own country rules. If you choose one in particular, remember to look at which countries they are not available. China, for example, blocks Facebook. And many countries in the Middle East block Facebook.
Instagram is a great platform for sharing images and bite-size stories. It’s also great because it focuses so heavily on higher quality images, and everything you do can be sent out to many people at once. Do you want to have a private account or a public one? Advantages of a private account are obviously that no one weird is following you without your consent. Public accounts you have a chance to grow a following, perhaps win some photo contests, and speak to people you don’t necessarily know in person. You could also just create two accounts.
SMS. If you’re looking for something more intimate, one-on-one conversations, consider how the other person prefers to be contacted. In some places, you might not have Wifi or data access, but might be able to send SMS text messages. In other cases it might be the total opposite. Consider both the other person’s familiarities as well as the kind of digital access you’ll have. Texts are the easiest mode of communication in many situations, and they are still a highly preferred method of communication among our students.
Youtube. Perhaps you want to send home a richer experience of everything you’re learning and going through. Video can be extremely vivid. Vlogs are a relatively easy way to bring people into your experience, and you’ll get a chance to work on your editing and video skills. Many of our students make music videos like this one.
4. Determine a communication schedule before departure
Talk with your parents and guardians especially about this one. They will probably worry if you disappear off the face of the Earth without telling them, and with good reason. Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re invincible, and mistakes happen all the time.
If you decide that once a week is manageable, then stick to it. Commitment is a virtue, and you’ll learn a lot from trying to get to a phone booth in the middle of a crazy religious festival, or whatever it is, because you said you’d do it. If calling via phone is too much, perhaps consider adjusting the communication plan by adding a mix of platforms.
You can text your friends and family every few days, and video call every couple weeks. The key is consistency and predictability. In many cases, your home base can be an incredible resource for safety and support while you’re on the road. If you need to, just remember ask for help.
The key in making sure that you have the right balance of support and freedom to explore and do your thing, and that all your friends and family are happy too, is having a plan, and sticking to it. If you need to change the plan, give them a heads up.
5. Remember FOMO
Your friends and family back at home might be having a great time. Their photos might be incredible. All the friends they’re making, that ice cream place you used to always go to. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re having the best time ever, and they’re bored out of their minds sitting in a giant lecture hall, missing you.
The point is, the images we send home and receive don’t always tell the full picture, so don’t get too carried away by the fear of missing out, and remember why you decided to do a gap year in the first place. The challenge is completely part of it. And just the same, just because you’re having the best time ever doesn’t mean everyone wants to know every detail. Be careful not to alienate those you love because they didn’t make the same awesome decision as you to take a gap year and learn something new about the world.
Staying in touch is about keeping those relationships healthy during your time abroad and so they’re there for you when you come back, as healthy and happy as ever.