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Study Abroad: Point: Counterpoint

Virtual Advising

Is Face-to-Face Student Contact Now Obsolete?

How have our responsibilities as advisers changed in the electronic age? Do students ever truly leave the U.S. if they have access to email and the Internet? How will the availability of online resources to all students and international educators affect the adviser-advisee relationship?

In addition to mail, faxes, phones, voice mail, appointments, and walk-ins, we now have email, websites, telnetting, file transfer protocol (ftp), uploading, downloading, CDs, movie clips, and more!

It’s all out there. Students can find information about thousands of study abroad programs, financial aid, historical and cultural details about the places they plan to go—even train schedules, live weather information, whether or not they need shots, and how to get a visa. It is quite overwhelming. And incredibly helpful.

A few key sites can help students focus in on what they really seek. With a goal established (or even without one), surfing off on a tangent is easy enough. Advisers can set up a file of bookmarks for students to check out. Binders with the splash pages printed out and the websites noted can be a great teaser for students who may not know about what they can find online, including their own school’s programs.

Virtual Advising Is Here

Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln’s website has been online for about three years. While I was the study abroad adviser, I received many, many inquiries about our programs from around the globe—even a few emails from foreign nationals requesting to study abroad on our programs without ever setting foot on our campus. Program information, financial aid and scholarship information, and even the program applications are online—although students must print them out and send or bring them in to the school.

Easy access to so much information has resulted in “virtual advising.” In many cases this is good. Some students already know what they are looking for; others, because of distance or circumstance, are unable to get to campus for one-on-one advising. While I am disturbed by virtual advising—nonverbal cues and conversation are some of the most valuable tools I use each day—the writing’s on the wall: face-to-face contact will soon be only for those who desire it.

In the beginning, email was used in study abroad only for discussion lists like NAFSA’s SECUSS-L and to communicate with students and programs overseas. While I was studying in Germany in 1994-1995, I was rarely in touch with my university. None of my family and only a few friends had email access—unfortunate because I couldn’t easily and quickly write to my family and phone calls were expensive.

Now, with nearly unlimited access, students often spend more time on email than they perhaps would have spent writing letters in the past. The sheer immediacy and low cost makes email a logical option and the new journaling style for the 21st century. Even on our own U.S. campuses, students are incessantly at computers, emailing and surfing much more than they had previously written letters. So, the trend prevails whether the students are in the U.S. or overseas.

Quick and easy contact is important when something goes wrong. Whether the problem is a conflict in the host family or a trip to the hospital, the instant information you receive can help you to help your students when they need it. But instant communication can lead to other problems, like the student’s right to privacy.

Most agree that we should print out emails and place them in the students’ files when we receive them to document events as they happen. But what about the security of the electronic correspondence?

Depending on the situation, we may not need to intervene but instead leave it to a resident director on site. On those occasions when we do need to respond, we need to decide what is best to convey by a phone call or a fax to the site coordinator or student. It is a vague area and just one example of how each institution must agree upon its own policy in an age of electronic advising.

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