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.
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.