It is often assumed that social networking sites and Internet access hinders study abroad students’ ability to immerse themselves in the culture of their host country. Although many young students have a tendency to be wirelessly connected all the time, this is more difficult while abroad. Most students purchase cheap prepaid phones only with minutes and texts to avoid roaming while abroad.
I think this lack of wireless frees students of distractions, and in a way it forces them to have a more engaging relationship with their surroundings. Students abroad still have access to the Internet, and it is the balance between lack of wireless and access to Internet that enhance their study abroad experiences.
In an article in the Journal of Studies International Education, Jude P. Mikal and Kathryn Grace make the argument that the Internet helps students transition smoothly while abroad by allowing them to stay connected with their social networks at home. Face-to-face (FTF) encounters with the host culture allow for learning culture and language, and this theory is often applied to study abroad. However, Mikal and Grace find that more recent research suggests that Internet-mediate communication does not oppose FTF communication. In fact:
“The Internet may be an effective means through which to access socially supportive peer networks, and break down barriers to communication–both of which have the potential to reduce stress and increase integration while abroad.”
The authors highlight that the two central principles of the normative models of intercultural adjustment are: that intercultural adjustment is marked by increased stress, and that stress reduction comes as a result of increased social interaction (Mikal 289). Related to this is the theory that the Internet is tool which helps individuals and groups of social networks maintain “significant and supportive relationships” (Mikal 290).
Mikal and Grace conducted studies, surveys, and focus groups to determine how the Internet is used by study abroad students. It was found that students reported spending an average of 4.49 hours online per day; 1.49 engaged in online communication, 1.22 hours engaged in information seeking, 1.49 entertainment seeking. Also, 85% of these students reported at least daily use of SNS.
“The Internet has the potential to permit students to transition more smoothly.”
Students who go abroad and experience stressors like the inability to communicate in a foreign language, cultural differences, homesickness, financial problems, and academic problems, need a strong support network. Many times the people in this network are at home. As a result, students turn to e-mail, social media, and SNS (social networking sites), and the Internet to get the support they need and reduce the chances of feeling isolated.
Personally, I use a variety of SNS to stay in contact with friends and family on a regular basis. When I went abroad, it was certainly helpful to remain connected in that way because it felt as though I was only gone physically; we could still communicate almost every day. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, blogs, e-mail, Instagram, and other platforms of media are providing a sense of continuity in study abroad students’ communication habits. By having them and using them abroad, it helps to make their transition more smooth and less stressful. Additionally, the Internet does the same for the post-study abroad experience and reverse culture shock that often occurs when returning home. It allows students to remain connected to the people they met abroad, news from their host city, etc. In short, the Internet helps students remain connected with life at home while being away for an extended period of time.
Students are applying their technological “edge” to their experiences abroad to promote integration and reduce stress.
The Internet is an incredible resource for students and travelers. The infinite amounts of data and information constantly being added to the web are important for students to use. Academic research and language learning is often enhanced by Internet use.
For example, I changed the language setting on my SNS, computer, and mobile to Spanish so that I felt more immersed in the Spanish culture while I was abroad, and it helped my language skills drastically. Some ways I used the Internet in my academics while abroad:
- I practiced Spanish by watching videos online and using apps like Google Translate
- I did academic research online for my class assignments since textbooks were not required
- Students in my Photography class posted blogs weekly to use as portfolios
- Students in my Economics class used Google Docs to communicate, share notes, and collaborate while studying
Just as students use the Internet for academic purposes at home, they use it in academics abroad as well. Students in Mikal and Grace’s survey wrote:
- “Thanks to the support or information I found online, I performed better in my courses”
- “Thanks to support I received online, this problem interfered less with my school performance”
- “Thanks to support or information I found online, I felt more confident interacting with the host culture”
Mikal and Grace’s point out that students use online information to locate destinations of places of interest and cultural activities, or for travel. By using the Internet to do so, “students created opportunities to interact with members of the target culture and to integrate more effectively” (Mikal 301). Study abroad experiences rely on the students’ desires to connect with a culture or country, so when students use the Internet to learn about it, there is an advantage. It can enhance their time abroad by teaching them both conceptually or historically, as well as by experience.
The Internet as a resource for travel is not a new concept, and it comes easy to young students. Much traveling is done by study abroad participants, and it is a strong industry. Travel companies in popular host cities have programs aimed toward study abroad students, like Discover Excursions, Bus2Alps, and Florence For Fun. The Internet is their main platform used to reach students and prospective students before they get to the host city. I was an intern at Discover Excursions, and they reached me through Facebook months before my program in Spain even began.
How It Helps
Students use of the Internet does not change drastically when going abroad, but it changes in context and in agenda. The same networks and platforms are used, but for slightly different reasons; to find support from social networks at home, to learn about a culture a student is living in, to find local events/places, and often for travel purposes. In conclusion, Mikal and Grace suggest “a subtle shift of students’ online peer networks from Amerocentric, to multinational” (Mikal 303). This change will eventually lead to students’ ability to learning.