How Facebook changed the face of Study Abroad

At the risk of sounding like an old biddy, “Back in my day.. (2004) there was no internet.” That’s a lie of course. The world wide web had the globe in its silky grasp, but had yet to slip into every home. I left for Spain without a laptop and went to live in a flat with no internet connection. Not even the whirring, beeping cacophony of dial-up.

I don’t remember this being a life-altering detail at the time. The computer lab at the Center for Modern Language was the size of a bedroom, with three old dinosaur PCs. The hard plastic chairs in front of them were consistently full with a rotation of students, basking in the monitor’s blue glow. I settled for a nearby Internet cafe for my online needs –  which back then were 75% uploading photos and the other 25% sending emails.

Yes, emails. No status updates or tweets or instagram photos of my every waking minute overseas. Just long awaited hellos to friends and family, and the sending of photos to share my travels.

Last year when I visited with my former Resident Director she told me, over a plate of churros, that every host family now had wifi. This blew me away. Every house? What a terrible idea! It reportedly stemmed from a significant list of parents who demanded that their children be awarded the necessity (not the luxury) of connectivity at home. No more walks down to the Internet cafe, and you can forget going online at school. Sit in your señora’s flat with your earbuds in, chattering away on Skype from your bedroom. Almost like you’d never been gone at all.

And you haven’t.

overconnected

courtesy of gadgetsteria.com

If you spend the majority of your time overseas plugged into your American life, you are missing out. On everything.

Picture yourself a giant: standing tall, straddling the Atlantic. One foot is cushioned in the US – with news of home, drama from school, TV shows and local sports crawling up your leg. Your other foot is perched carefully on the Rock of Gibraltar, scaring away the tourists, not speaking the language and slowly crushing the immersion out of your study abroad experience.

We teach our students about culture shock. Up with the honeymoon stage – joy and bliss abound. Down with the rejection stage – depression and homesickness lie in wait. Then you adjust, adapt, and re-enter. When do you think students are inclined to log on the most? Think of it as a budding relationship. You will gush to your friends about the new and wonderful in fits and starts – you are so consumed by your love that you hardly have the time. Then when it starts to fade, your friends hear countless sad tales and horror stories, so that they soon echo your sentiments: “its awful” .. “how terrible” .. “you must hate it.”

Do you? I didn’t. But living abroad last year there were times when it was just easier to crack the open the mac and Gchat with my mom, or Facebook my best friend about my woes. No longer was it about getting news from home, but a lifeline. I’m in crisis – hang on to me, via this internet connection. Instead of seeking support from those around you in times of need, it is so much easier to reach back to where you came from, and the comforts of home.

Social media is not the downfall of study abroad. If you know me at all, you know its one of my major platforms. I will tweet, post and blog to my heart’s content in an effort to share study abroad with anyone that cares to listen.

Social media is not the downfall of study abroad, but it has changed the way we do things. For the better? Perhaps. But the next big challenge is in the balance – teaching students to be socially responsible with their media (and fiscally, if they tend toward that $700 iPhone bill).

So put your phone down, and close your mac. My blog will be here when you get back. So will your parents, and your cousin’s new house, and your friend’s engagement ring. Disconnect yourself for a while, and you’ll see just what you’re missing.

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11 thoughts on “How Facebook changed the face of Study Abroad

  1. This is so true! Even in ’08 I didn’t have wifi in my piso, and I think it really helped me disconnect from my family and friends back home (in a good way). It’s definitely a double-edged sword.

  2. This is so right on. I also went abroad for the first time (& in 2007!) without my laptop or any way to really connect back home. I called home using phone cards sold in kiosks from public phone booths and used an internet café to occasionally write emails and mostly to do the school assignments. I made plans through text message and “toques”. I think that this was wonderful for study abroad, as I didn’t get sucked in to staying home watching American series, skyping, reading in English… but as an expat, I love my social media lifestyle! It makes things so much easier (and cheaper) and I think I probably socialize more because of technology. Anyway, great insight!

  3. My host family definitely didn’t have wifi and I think it was nice…I had to walk over to Cafe y Te and skype my parents from a crowded coffee shop. I tended to spend more time at home with my host mom instead. I emailed my parents during the school day every once and a while just to let them know I was alive. Great blog post!

  4. Facebook is no doubt a great source to connect with friends, family and with those who are far away from us. In case some one is studying abroad like in Australia or in USA or UK, then Facebook makes distance shorter between friends and family. This is the easiest and the cheapest source of connecting with people you care.

    • Connecting with people you care is important – but Katherina (above) makes a good point. When you talk to those people every day, you have no news to share. Those long stretches (3, dare I say 5) days between messages can mean a whole set of new stories. Isn’t half the fun in the sharing? Take the time you would waste checking statuses on Facebook .. and write a postcard!

  5. I remember, back in 2007, I didn’t have Facebook. I kept in touch with friends and family via e-mails and skype. Updates were less frequent and therefore much richer in content! So on one side, Facebook has made it easier to keep (fully) updated with people who are thousands of miles away… but it has also taken away the personal touch of an e-mail or a phone call (or even a letter or postcard!).

  6. I completely agree with everything you said! Although even though I have a barely there phone for 15cents a min here in Spain, the American in me longs for an iPhone sometimes!

  7. I’m researching a presentation on academic uses of social media and finding a lot of opinion pieces like this about the value (good or bad) of study abroad. I definitely agree it’s a balancing act and back in my biddy days studying abroad in 2001 laptops and high speed internet were like things from Star Trek. But even then, I had knew a girl on the program who spent all her time in her room reading old paperback books from the US. Her disengagement with the her local surroundings and people was a choice. And it had nothing to do with technology. So perhaps it comes down to the personality and character of each student. If a student wants to withdrawal from the world when she studies abroad…she’ll find away. Thanks for the great conversation!

    I wrote a satirical piece several years ago on the same topic. http://www.insidestudyabroad.com/2009/05/how-internet-screwed-up-study-abroad.html

    • Cheers, Brooke! There is so much to laugh about / discuss / deconstruct when it comes to our students and technology abroad. At a presentation in Dublin we inserted photos of students glued to their phones in one-of-a-kind locations: museums, beaches and even cafes – surrounded by peers doing the same damn thing. As an educator I hope for the best case scenario, that immersion is possible regardless of technology use .. we just have to find a way to harness it and use it for good, and not constant Facebooking :)

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