Filipinos Studying Abroad: Reflections From a Parent of a Pinoy Foreign Exchange Student


I was aware there would be plenty of people who would see me ugly-cry at the airport but as much as I tried to hold back the tears, my eyes filled up and my face flushed as I watched my only child, 19, walk towards the Departure area for what would be his life-changing experience.

He would be gone for a year-long study as an international exchange student in Japan. When he told me of this plan a few months ago, my first instinct as a parent was to throw support and encouragement; to push him towards the opportunity. Nobody told me how much his plan would affect all of us as a family unit.

Applying to become a foreign exchange student

Sometime last year, my son floated the idea that he might apply for the foreign exchange program in one of his school’s partner universities. The University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, under its Office of International Linkages, offers and assists qualified students who wish to experience studying abroad for a short semester or a year-long stay.

Several schools in Metro Manila or Luzon and Cebu, both private and state universities, have their own International Linkages division. These institutions facilitate sending Filipino students to China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, USA, Australia and a few European countries, or accept foreign students from the same countries as long as the school is at par with the Philippine school.

Below are some of the schools with foreign student exchange programs. Contact the school for details on application and requirements:

In 2015, UP shifted its school calendar from June-March to August-May to follow the school calendars abroad. The shift forged better ties and created bigger opportunities for the academe to become one of the best partner schools in the South East Asian region. “In terms of sending the signal to potential partners abroad, to other universities, and even to UP that we are ready to link up with the region and with the world…of course it’s positive,” Prospero de Vera of the UP Public Affairs office told Rappler.

Preparations, apprehensions for studying abroad

In my son’s batch, about 56 students left UP in February and March this year for the start of spring semester abroad. There were some 30 students in the previous batch as UP sends out students every semester.

Students applying to the foreign exchange program in UP can either land a full scholarship (which will cover tuition fees and books, dorm or housing, airfare, insurance and monthly allowance for food, utilities and other expenses) or a partial scholarship (which will cover just the tuition fees) but partner schools also offer other scholarships, depending on the government or university.

My son, who has never lived alone nor visited a foreign land by himself, was accepted with a partial scholarship. Then, it dawned on me and his father that we might have to scrape our emergency fund, or sell some of our stuff, or work double or triple hours so we can save enough money to support his dreams. Not including tuition fees, a month’s worth of expenses for a student living abroad is almost equal to a mid-range salary of a corporate office worker in the Philippines.

Fear and apprehension made me second-guess my choice to allow my son to embark on this huge change. My biggest and most extreme worry was that he’d go hungry and beg for food in a foreign country. In private, I had anxiety attacks and empty nest depression syndrome for about five months before my son left. As much as I was initially encouraging this opportunity, in the back of my mind I was boggled by questions on whether we were placing him on the right path or putting him at risk.

In the Philippines, it’s not unusual for children to continue living with their parents even after graduating high school and sometimes well way into adulthood. Family ties define the essence of our culture and being a “mama’s boy” isn’t entirely a bad thing compared to other cultures.

My son is not a mama’s boy as he has always had a sense of independence even as a child. But since he’s my only child, I would often struggle in trying to balance my desire and intention to protect him versus the importance of teaching him to “man up.” When it was becoming clearer and clearer that he was leaving, I had to constantly remind myself that sending him off to live alone in a new country will teach him to become not just a man, but an emphatic and enlightened human being.

Acclimating in a new environment

On his first few nights away from home, my son had mixed emotions.  He missed the comforts of home but marveled at being in a new place. One of his biggest challenges was in communicating with the locals. He knew a bit of Japanese before he left but he wasn’t confident with getting his message across.

Settling into his new university was easy because there was plenty of help available plus he mingled with other foreign students. The new apartment was another story altogether and took some effort since he had to do most things on his own. He had to find the cheapest market to buy food, learn house hacks to save on water and/or the electric bill, and he also had to find a part-time job, his very first, so he could earn extra allowance.

Three months after he left, my uncle, who was on a holiday in Japan, met up with him to deliver a care package we created. It had mostly Filipino snacks like polvoron, his favorite local chips and Filipino kitchen ingredient items or condiments, marinade powder and seasoning for the meals he would cook for himself.

My uncle told me later that my son seemed well-adjusted to life in Japan in such a short span of time. He also got along with a couple of Japanese students who have been his constant companions both in and out of school.

Whenever my husband and I would Skype with my son, I can sense him changing and maturing before my eyes. These days, we often discuss how he is juggling his school work and part-time work, or how he’s getting by when there are minor issues with a difficult professor, or a co-worker or his employer. We also talk about how he’s handling his budget and earning. He consults us about things we might have overlooked or not even discuss had he not left the Philippines.

His being away changed the dynamics of our family unit because there are days he discusses things with us like an adult discussing with another adult, and not like a child to his parents. He’s turning 20 in a few months and it is truly the time to become a man.

Written by Rachel Cruz

Rachel Cruz is a freelance writer from Manila who wishes to build a new Philippines