Posted in Issues, Souvenirs, Study Abroad

Internet and the Study Abroad Experience

An educator recently posed the question to a study abroad listserv I subscribe to about whether or not there have been recent studies conducted comparing the study abroad experience for students pre- and post-Internet. He was seeking to know if the Internet had fundamentally altered the study abroad experience due to increased ability to remain connected to home.

Image: Kevin Law

I find this to be a very interesting and important topic to be discussed, particularly as international educators continue to promote the study abroad experience as being vital for our students, and as technology continues to advance and reach parts of the world that did not have access before. Are the “vital” components being undermined by technological advancements? The research on this topic would have great implications on a number of areas including education, marketing, communications, and economics.

Before I dive in, here’s my technology background: I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I recall life before cell phones, Internet and digital cameras. I was computer-less my freshman year of college and thought nothing of it. My first cell phone was purchased in 2004, was pay-as-you-go, and was used primarily for texting, which was done without a full keyboard.

My initial thoughts to the question posed were that yes it has changed the experience and not for the good. At first glance I see the computer mediation as a hindrance. If a student keeps in contact with friends and family on a daily or hourly basis, what time are they allowing for the act of being present in their new environment, getting to know the people around them, and learning or unlearning parts of themselves? Not only is time being invested, but also the mind and emotions.

My first cell phone looked very similar to this one. Image: ifixit.com

If a student only spent five minutes a day connecting with home, that may be a short amount of time, but there is a much larger deposit in the emotional bank. If he is having a bad day, that five minutes could perk him right up, but what happens when he cannot reach those at home in a moment of crisis? Unfortunately, he’s felt so supported by those at a distance that he has not taken the time to seek out a local support system. Where does he turn in these moments? Also, there may be times when his best friends can’t help him because they are physically not there and he needs someone in person to aide him.

Also, why are students keeping in touch? Are they concerned they will be missing out on their life at home, who’s dating who, and what’s happening on campus? Newsflash. While they’re worried they’re missing out at home, they’re also missing out where they are. People at the host institution who have direct contact with a student studying abroad (fellow study abroad students, native students, advisors, teachers) are friendly and welcoming. They can also perceive when someone is disinterested or preoccupied. I don’t know that I would take the time to get to know someone those first crucial days if I thought they came across that way. There are plenty of other people to befriend.

While in Ireland for the summer I wanted to keep in touch with my friends. I only had Internet access in a computer lab that had limited hours. I would send mass emails weekly letting everybody know what I was up to. I was trying to set a routine early on as at that time I would be away an entire 12 months over the course of both my study abroad programs. I didn’t want them to forget me or lose touch. Eventually people stopped replying (which was frustrating to me) and I became too busy. When things are going well or as expected there is less reason to connect with home. In my experience, only when sh*t hits the fan, issues come up, or something is unresolved does the desire to reach out to a known support system increase and contact is made more frequently.

If, on the other hand, students are keeping in touch as a requirement or request from their parents to contact them at a preset interval or as in one such case I read about where the student’s parents required her to use Skype in order to see that she was in her room each night – that’s a whole other issue. All I have to say on this topic is if you’re okay with your child going, then let your child go.

My second thought was that this might not be that simple because I believe the study abroad experience to be very personal, and, therefore, very subjective and contextual. If I had a friend or family member who had sacrificed a lot for me to go abroad or had never been abroad but was really invested in my experience, I would probably send them a photo daily and tell them I’d go over the photos with them when I returned. Students might be forwarding articles and information about a local event or local opinion on an issue to their friends back home thus feeling connected by sharing a new perspective, and, consequently, expanding the knowledge of the entire group.

As I’ve discussed before, my time in Utrecht, Netherlands was much different than Ireland. Yes, I made friends, traveled, and enjoyed most of my classes. I also encountered minor issues with course scheduling, funding, and equivalences. And some major ones: debilitating anxiety, culture shock, and 9/11. All of these required increased communication with home, either with my parents or my university. Dealing with the school issues made it hard to just get on with my time and achieve some normalcy which is all I wanted while navigating my culture shock and newly found anxiety. Then 9/11 happened and I didn’t know if the program would end or how much I was at risk being an American student abroad. Many people felt on edge and initially we really weren’t turning towards each other for help.

Here’s what I wonder – if Skype had been released and I had been a regular user, would I have reached out to my friends back home during that time when I felt lost, worried, and lacked a local support system, and, consequently, have stayed the whole year?

I can’t ever know for sure but I want to say yes. Not only being able to hear their voices (inexpensively), but to see their faces would have brought great comfort. I know they would have been cheering me on to stay, and talking me through my darker and most paralyzing moments. In that set of circumstances, turning to my established support group so instantaneously, so tangibly, so completely through the technology rather than trying to forge a local one from shaky ground would have been greatly appreciated and wanted. Even if the result wasn’t to have completed my year abroad, having that access at that time would have changed the experience for me and for the better.

Overall, I find this topic fascinating. More thoughts went through my mind on this than I could write, let alone organize for a post. I’ll be very interested to read more research as it’s published and hear firsthand accounts of students as they reflect on their use of the Internet as means of connecting with home and their experiences abroad.

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