Commentary: Does technology diminish impact of international experiences?

A long time ago in a place far way, I was an exchange student. I lived on a small Pacific island, surrounded by a vast watery landscape that stretched beyond the horizon in all directions.

I felt further cut off from The World As I Knew It when it came to my ability to communicate with family and friends back home in Illinois, half a world away. Each handwritten letter took roughly seven days from when I dropped it off at the island post office until it reached its Midwestern destination. Likewise, letters from home took a full week to find their way into my hands. When it came to news from home, I was always at least a week behind.

Phone calls were technically possible, but prohibitively expensive. I was told that the trans-Pacific connection wasn’t always reliable. And I hadn’t quite figured out the time difference. So I never attempted it.

Instead, I toughed it out and confronted my culture shock head on. I adapted to and ultimately embraced this exotic corner of the world into which I’d been immersed.

Fast forward to 2013: Young people have more options than ever to travel, live, study and work abroad. They also have more options and tools for staying connected with home. They can converse across thousands of miles and time zones as easily as talking with someone across town.

It’s natural for those of us who survived (and thrived) experiences of disconnected immersion to regard The Way We Did It as best. We might even be tempted to pass along our wisdom, by telling young folks that they would benefit more by following our way. But many of us recognize that this issue is not quite that simple.

In a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled How Facebook Can Ruin Study Abroad (January 14, 2013), Robert Huesca – a professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio Texas – takes aim at “the insidious impact of new communication technologies on living and learning in another culture.”

Huesca, who first studied abroad in Mexico in 1980, acknowledged that communications technologies have both positive and negative impacts. But, in describing his recent experience with a volunteer organization in Benin, he notes that, “far more often, advanced communications were negative forces in the cross-cultural experiences of the volunteers.”

His commentary sparked plenty of responses, which included calls for students to make iron-clad no-media promises as a condition of participating in a study abroad program and being required to attend a technology-free retreat as part of their pre-departure preparations.

Last month, a group of people involved with international experiences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison gathered informally to weigh in. No one called for a technology ban or no-media promise.

At the same time, everyone seems to recognize that advances in communication technologies affect students’ international experiences.

Let’s face it: email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and the like have become part of the world in which we live, and are available in most of the places where students are going.

While the idea of a pre-departure, tech-free retreat has a certain appeal, requiring participation seems rather heavy-handed.

International experiences — including study abroad, internships, exchanges and service-learning — generally invite some degree of personal reflection. Today, the contemplation should include recognizing our connection to and reliance upon technology, and understanding how technology can be used to enhance and share our experiences—e.g., through blogs and social media. It’s also useful to become aware of how technology can get in the way of experiences, just as it can in our daily lives at home.

But our own international experiences should have taught us old-timers that we should not be imposing our values and ideas on others. Today, each student selects an international program based on individual needs and preferences; ultimately, each student must be responsible for deciding how much time and effort to put into the experience.

Besides, for many of us, to rant about the negative impacts of technology would be hypocritical. Even though I didn’t have electronic options for communications way back when, I value Facebook today as a means to stay closely connected with my island family and friends.

Finally, if these tools had been available back then, I have no doubt that most of us would have used them, without any second thought.

— by Kerry G. Hill

(Kerry G. Hill, director of public affairs for the UW–Madison Division of International Studies, was one of the first AFS exchange students to Micronesia, where he lived with a Chamorro family on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.)