For higher education professionals and those interested in the field, The Chronicle of Higher Education is one of the first places to go for news. Personally, though, I prefer their commentary.
Robert Huesca’s article, “How Facebook is Ruining Study Abroad,” came into my inbox last week, and I wanted to share it:
Curious locals would frequently crane their necks or yell up at our terrace to get the attention of the foreigners so engrossed in their entertainment. The resulting interactions tended to be fleeting, nothing approximating depth, substance, or cultural exchange. Rather than “going native,” we played the role of exotics in our noisy, daily spectacles.
In full disclosure, I’m no expert in studying abroad. I didn’t do it myself, and the institution I work at doesn’t have a very extensive program, although we do send a handful of students to various countries each semester. My experience begins and ends with visiting friends who were abroad during my school breaks. In 2007, it was Ireland. In 2008, Italy.
In Florence, I saw not one friend or two, but dozens of classmates. My alma mater has a large extension campus there, and sends a great many students, some for all four years of the undergraduate career. These friends had different experiences than others I had known that had visited Ireland, Spain, New Zealand, South Africa. They all lived with each other, they all went out together in groups, they explored different countries on weekends as a pack. When I traveled with them, I felt more a part of a group of American tourists than students studying in the country for the semester. They learned Italian in class and in some local interactions every week, but when they got home at the end of the day, they had their friends who spoke English. None of them lived with host families, and none of them seemed truly immersed in their host country’s culture. This isn’t to say they didn’t learn a lot from their experiences; I believe they did. At the same time, however, the potential was there to have learned a lot more if they hadn’t been around so much that was familiar to them*.
This isn’t the original argument in Huesca’s article, I understand, but the bottom line is the same: with so much exposure to one’s own native culture, there isn’t a need to explore the culture of those around you. By being able to catch up on your favorite shows on Netflix, there is no need to check out the local cinema. Replace Netflix with iTunes, and cinema with music, etc.
Technology is wonderful for homesickness, and surely being connected to Facebook and Skype has eliminated a great many of those awkward “uh, I can’t do this, I need to go home now” moments in the middle of a study abroad semester. But with an increased comfort zone is a decreased need to get out and explore. A study abroad trip can become nothing more than a run of the mill semester. Go to class, go home, do homework, stalk Facebook, rinse and repeat. The exciting notion that you’re in a foreign country gets lost and taken for granted.
So, to all those studying abroad in Spring 2013: Get out there and explore. Unplug. Or, if you must sit by your computer, vow to at least get some local exposure. Ask around for where the best music venue is, or where the local movie theater is playing cheap second-run flicks. Your computer (and your friends) will be there when you get home. As someone who watched many classmates come and go during study abroad, trust me, we’ll be there when you get back. And since we have to live vicariously through your adventures, make them worthwhile to retell.
*Of course, the purpose of studying abroad can argued from now until the end of time. Is there a real set of guidelines, a checklist to consider if a semester abroad satisfied certain cultural requirements? Does a student that spent lots of time soaking up local culture have any moral high ground over one that didn’t? Each student has their own priorities studying abroad. Some may want to focus on studying to keep their GPA intact, others may focus on visiting as many countries as possible while sacrificing their academic performance. To each their own.
A Higher (Education) Calling is a new series for 2013. On the first Monday of every month, I’ll be focusing on a particular topic or issue in higher education. As always, my opinions are my own and do not reflect the institution I work at or the ones I have attended.