My conservative parents won’t allow me to study abroad. How can I convince them I’ll be safe?

<span>‘Parents put a lot of work into keeping their children safe from certain forces, most especially the ones they’ve had to suffer with themselves.’ Painting: John Johnstone, Betty Johnstone and Miss Wedderburn by Sir Henry Raeburn.</span><span>Photograph: MAXPPP/Alamy</span>
‘Parents put a lot of work into keeping their children safe from certain forces, most especially the ones they’ve had to suffer with themselves.’ Painting: John Johnstone, Betty Johnstone and Miss Wedderburn by Sir Henry Raeburn.Photograph: MAXPPP/Alamy

I am from an Asian country and a semi-conservative background. I want to study overseas next year. I have done a lot of research and a particular university and I seem a perfect match. My parents are staunchly opposed to the idea as they feel I will be unsafe and targeted there as a woman of colour living there all alone.

They are not willing to have any conversation and refuse to allow me to prove myself. I want to pursue a career in academia and the course I want to apply to isn’t available in my country. How to convince my parents to allow me to study abroad?

Eleanor says: There are a lot of faces to racism and xenophobia and it would be helpful to know which is most animating: are they most concerned you will be physically unsafe? That you’ll have a horrible time emotionally and professionally? And are they also concerned if you leave you’ll never come back – or that they might lose you, in a more existential sense, to a different world or culture?

Many things could be intertwining to create their sense that this is an unsafe decision. It might help to get clear on what motivates what. Otherwise, you’ll think you’ve vanquished one objection only for another to appear, hydra-like, confirming the verdict that you can’t go.

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On top of that, there are two possible reactions to each of their possible concerns. One is “it’s not as bad as you think”. The other is “even if it is, this is important enough that I want to do it anyway”. One is about the state of facts. The other is about whose decision this is, given the facts.

For instance, they’re not wrong that you might have a worse time in academia as a woman of colour. That may be amplified by youth, moving, loneliness and workload. If your disagreement is about how bad things will be, it might help to show them a social infrastructure you’d use so that, when you face these problems, you at least wouldn’t face them alone: other women of colour at your university, an international student service, campus groups with others from the same country. But if the disagreement is about whose decision this is, that’s moot. The issue isn’t whether they’re right about the dangers. It’s why what you want from this education should matter more than your parents’ estimation of the dangers.

Persuasion has to be a two-part relationship here. As you try to figure out the source of their reaction and what might quell it, it’ll be important to treat their feelings with the same regard you want for yours.

You moving overseas, to somewhere they think you’ll be unwelcome – that’s an emotional thing for them. Parents put a lot of work into keeping their children safe from certain forces, most especially the ones they have had to suffer with themselves. It can be frightening if the child then wants to remove the protections against the threats the parent so vividly imagines: parents want these kinds of suffering confined to the past, or to their own lives. If you can learn more about your parents’ own experiences with racism or xenophobia, that might help make this a conversation between people rather than a negotiation over rules.

If none of that helps, one compromise (if you can stand it) might be to aim at this university for a graduate degree instead. You’ll need one eventually if you want to be an academic. You’d be older by then, and if they still disapprove, many graduate programs will pay your tuition and a stipend – so you might be able to go anyway.

You won’t be able to convince them to let you move without having some kind of conversation. If you can better understand the anatomy of their reaction, you can figure out where to best put your efforts.

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