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How to Best Combine Technology and Study Abroad

Direct Cultural Immersion Should Never be Sacrificed

Technology on a beach not necessary
A laptop while on a beach is usually not necessary for travelers or students.

My column for Vagabondish, “Diary or Blog? How to Decide Whether to Make Your Travels Private or Public,” made me think about the intersection of travel and technology. Through the internet, bookings are easier than ever. Information on possible destinations, how to get there, what to do, where to eat, etc., abounds. And with the rise of online social networking, you can even “friend” a hostel on Facebook before, during, or after your travel abroad.

At first glance, it appears that everything is right at your fingertips. With access to GPS technology becoming quite common, there is now really no reason for you to get lost while hunting for your destination. Moreover, judging from the countless recommendations on Rick Steves' Travel Forum, or the many dedicated foodie websites and apps, finding a great place to eat should not ever be an issue, either.

The Dilemma: Trusting Online Recommendations or Not

However, as someone who believes strongly in full-on cultural immersion, I am a bit wary of the way technology is shaping today’s travel scene. First and foremost, I still believe in getting offline when you travel. To me, travel remains largely about getting to know the local culture, the language, and fundamentally living in the mode of the unique community—to the extent possible.

Similarly, just as I do not make of a guidebook religious text while abroad, I doubt I would trust the recommendations of a stranger on Facebook (perhaps a close friend) about where to have the best dinner in Italy. To me, consulting a local would be a much more viable option (or following my nose).

Moreover, I wonder whether sources such as Facebook or Twitter are always a reliable source of information when it comes to the legitimacy of educational travel programs abroad. Transitions Abroad has committed itself to providing extensive first-hand participant stories to filter out anonymous testimonials or reviews, yet social networking offers another angle. But how do you know whether the information offered is accurate? Are reviews posted on dedicated review sites always objective? And even if if they are in their usually abbreviated format, how do you know it will work for you?

Ultimately, it is impossible to ever know the objective facts. However, to minimize your risks, consider contacting organizations directly, asking to be put in touch with a past participant. Better yet would be to connect with someone you know personally—though that is not, of course, always an option.

Social Networking Trends

While I have never based my decisions on information from social networking sites, I am very aware of the rising trend to do so. In fact, I hear more and more about the positive effects that technology has had on fellow travelers.

Amanda Montgomery, Marketing Manager at Social Media Delivered, explains that her “love for travel and time abroad have been the result of connections made through social media.” Specifically, she refers to herself as “A Texan on Twitter Turned World Traveler,” when she “set off for Pamplona to run with the bulls after meeting a girl from Ohio who used the hashtag #summerabroad.”

On her trip through Europe after a European Union simulation, Stephanie Majercik similarly connected via Twitter, but with locals. “I tweeted that our group was headed to Bruges,” she recalls. “A local coffee shop there tweeted me back their location and hoped that I would stop by. I went out of my way to stop there, since they had reached out, only planning on grabbing a cup of coffee to go. Instead, I spent the entire afternoon talking with the owner, a local American student at the College of Europe, and another Belgian local about European and American politics, languages, and more — the exact purpose of our trip.” It was through Twitter that she met new people outside her student group, and really understood why she had gone abroad in the first place.

Facebook and Twitter are perhaps currently the most obvious software platforms for reaching out. In addition, a trend appears to be that past study abroad or educational travel participants are subsequently create their own platforms. After studying abroad in Florence, Clarke Nobiletti co-founded Rollinglobe, a social guide for youth studying or traveling abroad. Likewise inspired by a study abroad in Italy a few years earlier, Jen O’Neal co-founded, a social networking site that offers travelers an easy way to meet local people. The two differ slightly, and Rollinglobe even offers editorial and sales internships for students abroad. Ultimately, however, most online travel forums stem from the same principle: to share experiences abroad through social media.

The Need for Balance

While I am certainly in favor of promoting learning of any kind, I do advise travelers to use technology in moderation. Strike a balance by complementing a Facebook conversation with an actual trip overseas, or take a Twitter follower out for an excursion off the beaten track. Particularly with regards to educational travel, it is important not to let the real experience be overtaken by a virtual one.

In contemporary society, temptations to allow this to happen are more persuasive than ever before. For example, while studying abroad, your friends may post events on Facebook—and it could be seen as impolite simply not to respond. On a positive note, today’s technologically interconnected world also allows you to take control of the situation. You have the power to moderate your use of technology. So when abroad, I recommend that you be conscious of the time you spend online.

When you return home you can, of course, continue to use Facebook and other tools to keep in touch with those you have met abroad. In fact, some researchers would argue that you should use social networking to stay in contact with your friends from abroad. Nicole Ellison, Associate Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University, has done extensive research on the effects of Facebook. In a research study, she investigated the relationship between Facebook use among college students and “social capital,” a term referring to the resources accumulated through the relationships among people (Coleman, 1988). In a nutshell, she argues that Facebook maintains social capital. In the realm of travel, this applies, too. After you leave a certain place, you can keep in touch with your friends via technology, be it through Facebook, email, or through some other communications source.

Elizabeth L. Paul and Sigal Brier of the Psychology Department at New Jersey College even coined the term “friendsickness,” meaning the distress caused by the loss of old friends. Even though their research from 2001 investigated the transition to college, the research could also relate equally to travel. As Ellison argues, “the ability to stay in touch via Facebook may offset feelings of “friendsickness.” So technology can even help to make you feel better when you are experiencing the lows of reverse culture shock. Just be sure that you do not let your “friendsickness” inhibit your life back home either.

Wherever you are, do keep in touch virtually, but do not neglect the foreign world you physically inhabit at the moment. Develop and maintain your network with locals, and it may well help you go abroad again and again!

Works Cited

Coleman, J. S. (1988). “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American Journal of Sociology, 94 (Supplement). S95-S120.
Paul, E., & Brier, S. (2001). “Friendsickness in the transition to college: Precollege predictors and college adjustment correlates.” Journal of Counseling and Development, 79 (1), 77-89.

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