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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Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Reaching Slot Zuylen Castle

In the early weeks of my culture shock while in the Netherlands weekends were a fearful thing. I didn’t know too many people yet. My Dutch roommates were often out of town or busy doing their own things. Without school to get me out of the apartment and interacting with others I feared I’d spiral even further downward. I saw a weekend trapped inside my head, and, thus my apartment, as a failure in time usage while I had this opportunity.

I had come from a summer in Ireland where I was very quickly incorporated into a group and was assumed to partake in any weekend plan. In the Netherlands, things weren’t so instantaneous. With people spread out across an entire city it proved more challenging to make friends than living in the dorm-style environment in Dublin where everyone was at my fingertips.

The first weekend in Utrecht in which the school wasn’t sponsoring an event neared. I began to hear about other people’s plans. It frustrated me that I didn’t have any, and my brain translated the fact that I hadn’t been asked to join anyone meant that I was un-liked. And if I was un-liked then it would be a very long, lonely year of limited travel and experiences. It never occurred to me to figure out what I wanted to do and ask other people if they wanted to join me. Not when I was in victim mode.

Two girls I had hung out with a couple of times were discussing how they were going to check out Slot Zuylen Castle located not far from town. They were going to ride their bikes along the Vecht River. It sounded very idyllic to me. Just the sort of local exploring I’d have chosen if I had been thinking that way. The more they went on about it the more I wanted them to ask me to go too. I wasn’t outgoing enough (it would be rude I thought) to just ask if they’d mind a third.

Slot Zuylen Castle

Friday came and they were still planning on going the following morning, but no invitation followed. I was boiling inside to the point of screaming with my thoughts about a failed, unused weekend, being trapped in my apartment, the dread of not having plans and forcing myself to go outside, and feeling un-liked enough to not be asked to do anything by others. I no longer cared if I was being rude. To me, I’d sacrifice being rude to try and avoid the darkness that loomed in my head. So I blurted out, “Can I go with you guys?”

“Of course,” one girl said. “We would have asked you but we thought you had other plans when you didn’t express an interest in going.” I didn’t see that response coming. When she said this something sort of clicked inside my head. I was able to step back from my situation and I recognized how my dealing with culture shock had affected the way I was viewing the scenario. Without my cloud of fear and anxiety, simply saying, ‘Hey that sounds like fun. Mind if I join?’ wouldn’t have felt like a do-or-die, all-or-nothing event. It would have been normal.

On that bike ride to the castle I was thrilled to see a snapshot of the countryside. I encountered my first windmill up close, saw sheep, and saw how the farmers direct and contain the plentiful water supply. Experiencing firsthand a taste of the extensive bike network out of the main cities was cool too. It seemed like something every country should have.

This freak-out, then blurt-out, and resultant positive response was the first step in breaking with my shock. It helped me to see whatever situation I found myself in more than one way. All was no longer doom and gloom. I still had a ways to go but having made that first step was everything.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

TAKING OFF — Chapter Three: The Arrival

London. London. London. I’m going to London! That is all that went through my head for weeks after I received my acceptance letter to the London School of Economics and Political Science. For a long-standing Anglophile, cultivated by years of watching British comedies on PBS, crushing on Wills, swooning over Cary Grant, solving and committing murders with Angela Lansbury, and, of course, enjoying the magic of Disney in the forms of Hailey Mills (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap), Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Robin Hood, this was a dream come true.

My friend, James, rented a Palace Guard's costume for my going away party.

But, the closer the date came for me to get on that plane and fly to England, fears and doubts began to bubble up. What worried me was the chance of a recurrence of what I experienced with culture shock while in the Netherlands. Two and half years had passed since I studied in Utrecht. Surely, by being more aware of culture shock I could reduce its severity, right?

This was my master’s degree. I didn’t want any shock-related issues to affect my studies. I couldn’t ignore the memories of how paralyzing culture shock had been for me, but I didn’t want to start off my year being bogged down by them. Nor did I want London to be ruined or tainted by a past it didn’t write. I tried to focus on making a fresh start. I had no notions of the people I would meet, nor any goals for the flight. I tried to remain excited about going.

The plane arrived at Heathrow early in the morning. Groggily, I made my way to the luggage carousel and through customs. It wasn’t until I was waiting for the Heathrow Express to take me to Paddington Station that it hit me. This was it. I had arrived. I was in London. THE London. Soon to be MY London, I hoped.

Once at Paddington Station, I switched to the Underground. I loved the Underground from previous trips. The map was easy to understand and I never feared getting lost. And if I did, I could console myself with some of my favorite chocolate from the Cadbury vending machines. I needed to take the Bakerloo Line to Oxford Street and then transfer to the Central Line. The Central Line would take me to my stop, Holborn Station. On the map this looked simple enough. It wasn’t.

First, I encountered morning rush hour. This is not the time to be navigating the narrow hallways connecting platforms of the Tube with one large, heavy pull piece of luggage and a book bag protruding from my back. Not only are there more people, but they are all in a hurry, and, therefore, try to jam as many of themselves into a car as possible. I tried not to take up too much precious space, but it was inevitable, and I drew irritated glares.

Then, I came across my first ever stations that didn’t have escalators and elevators. This meant lugging my overstuffed suitcase up and down what felt like hundreds of steps. My hand began to burn. I could only make it five or six steps at a time before I had to stop, readjust my grip, and continue. What the hell did I pack?!

Arriving at Holborn Station, I finally had an escalator, but only after a small flight of stairs. Fortunately, the residence hall I was staying in until I found my own accommodations was just down the road according to the directions I had. 178 High Holborn. By this time, I also had to use the restroom, or, I should say, the loo. A bursting bladder and blistered hand were not how I saw this arrival going.

As I made my way down the road, I used the numbers on the buildings across the street to guide me as I could not read the ones on my side because they were either missing or too high up on the facades for me to easily read. The numbers were going up – 131, 132. I  was going the right way. When I reached a really ornate building with a marquee over the sidewalk that read Holborn Hall, I thought I was at my destination and minutes away from relief.

As I approached, however, the building number told me this was 193-197. What?! Somewhere between the 130s and the 190s I had missed it. How was that possible? I didn’t recall seeing anything that indicated a residence hall or even a building owned by the school. I turned around and headed back for another look.

Reaching the Tube station, I had gone too far. I knew the hall was down this road, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find the number. I retraced my steps between the station and Holborn Hall for what seemed an eternity to my hand and bladder. I needed Sherlock Holmes. Clearly not finding the building, I decided to go a bit further down the road.

Bingo. Not two blocks from Holborn Hall was the residence hall. I could actually see it from the spot where I kept turning around. Well, didn’t I feel the fool for getting so close again and again. That’s when I realized that on this street the numbers on the buildings ran in opposite directions. The ones across the road counted up and the ones on my side counted down. I felt a little less foolish then. What a morning.

Covent Garden

Perhaps the tone of my arrival was indicative of the next 12 months – struggle after struggle. I sure hoped not. Though, as far as struggles go, these were not even blips. Perhaps it was a reminder to me that annoying stuff will happen, but it’s how I deal with them that counts. I knew from the Netherlands that if I held onto each little negative thing that happened, the accumulation would eventually tear me down. This time I’d listen to the old adage and not sweat the small stuff.

Once inside the long sought-after residence hall, I relinquished myself of my bags, used the loo [insert huge sigh of relief], and walked back out of the building. Once on the sidewalk, I turned left as I didn’t desire seeing the same section of street I had been pacing for the past half hour.

Left was a great choice. It offered new sights and no previous causes of irritation. I decided to take another left, and before too long, found myself in Covent Garden smiling from ear to ear. I wondered if Eliza Doolittle was around. London. London. London. I was in London!

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

The Shock of Culture Shock

They say that what does not kill you only makes you stronger.  For me, that describes my time in Utrecht, Netherlands studying in an exchange program at Universiteit Utrecht. It was my junior year, and I was dealing with major culture shock, the 9/11 tragedy, and a broken heart. The original plan was to spend the year in Utrecht, take classes that actually counted towards my major, improve my Dutch language skills, and see as much of mainland Europe as my studies would allow. Then things took a turn south.

Classes started and I found out the communications courses offered were more introductory than previously thought. They would no longer count towards my major as I had already fulfilled their equivalents. A last attempt at reconciliation with a boyfriend ended in many tears and my heart re-broken. And then the world I knew changed on September 11, 2001.

The severity of my culture shock was something I hadn’t anticipated. I had taken two semesters of Dutch before heading over to aid in the transition. The pressure I put on myself to speak often and well (“well” meant not being wrong) was completely out of proportion with my skill level. Any potential interaction that required me to speak Dutch threw me into a tailspin.

I retreated into myself. I began to have anxiety attacks, which I had never experienced before. When at the apartment I shared with two Dutch students, I rarely left the perceived safety of my bedroom. I felt like everything I did was wrong: how fast I rode my bike in the heavy traffic of the bike lanes to how I ordered a meal to how I dressed.

I would stare out my bedroom window at the sidewalk below. I knew that if I could just get myself out there, I’d be okay. The phantoms my brain had conjured would retreat. I had a hard time at first but I knew I had to make it out to that sidewalk, breathe in the fresh air, and just go.

The "safe" bedroom

I remember a phone conversation I had with my dad. He said he would come over and get me if I wanted him to. I did, but I knew I’d regret it. I had been talking about wanting to study abroad for so long. I had just come off a fantastic summer abroad in Ireland. I had proven to myself that I could do it then; now I had to prove to myself I could do it again – in tougher circumstances. Walk the walk, if you will.

So I made myself walk out of my room, down the two flights of stairs, get on my bike and ride. The fact that I am a person that doesn’t like to miss school probably saved me because it pushed me out the door those days I really wanted to stay in bed. Being on campus and in the classroom, I was in my scholarly element and could relax. This unavoidably led to meeting people, and, ever so fortunately, some of those people became friends.

My best friend on the program was a girl who, shockingly to both of us, went to college with and knew well one of my good friends from high school. The reminder of what a small world it was went a long way. I also befriended the rockin’est mix of ladies I’ve ever met. They helped me through what was the toughest time in my life. And actually one of those ladies was there for me again five years later when I was going through another tough time. (Thanks Allison!).

The Girls minutes away from going crazy on some Kylie Minogue - Can't Get You Outta My Head

In the end, I did decide to only stay for one semester as the credits towards my major were no longer an option and I wanted to graduate on time. It was a very difficult decision to make as I didn’t want to feel a failure. But I knew it was the right thing for me to do, for myself and my schooling.

When I think back now there is a bit of a dichotomy in my memories. On the one hand, I remember all the “dark days” of dealing with my culture shock. On the other, I remember all the awesome people I met, all the traveling we did together, of my favorite spots in Utrecht, of smiles, music, and laughter. Getting through that time has definitely made me stronger and the good memories all the sweeter.