Taking an administrative leave in Benin for the past six months provided an eye-opening contrast to my first study-abroad experience, in Mexico City back in 1980. Of particular note was the insidious impact of new communication technologies on living and learning in another culture.
As a former director of the office of international programs at Trinity University, in San Antonio, I am particularly attuned to the issues that concern professionals in study abroad—ranging from cultural immersion to health and safety. All of those issues seem to have been transformed for good and for ill by advances in information and communication technology.
While in Benin, I lived in the town of Ouidah, population 90,000, on the Atlantic coast of this West African republic. I had signed up with a program called the Humanity Exchange, which organizes volunteer opportunities and French-language instruction.
I lived in a house with 10 other volunteers who were either currently enrolled, prospective, or recently graduated college students. Some came for only a month, but all of them, including myself, came equipped with various levels of advanced electronics, including computers, mobile phones, digital cameras, iPads, iPods, and other media players loaded with movies, television programs, and music.
My time there convinced me that we need to add technology management to curricula aimed at preparing students to gain as rich an experience as possible from their time abroad.
While I was writing one morning at 10 o'clock, one of my roommates walked into the dining room with her Apple laptop computer opened and already in full operation. As she poured her bowl of cornflakes, she listened to soothing music ("Dance and DJ" music is the category on iTunes, she told me) as the well-known instant-messaging "ring" chimed repeatedly for her to respond to a friend on the West Coast—of America, not Africa.
That pedestrian morning scene exemplifies many of the hazards presented by new-media technologies and raises complex challenges for professionals who work with students going to places like Benin. This is all the more vexing because of the incommensurate low-tech context in which we volunteer.
Despite the rhetoric concerning the globalization of culture, politics, and economics, Ouidah is remarkably disconnected from the grid of Facebook and Amazon.com.
While teaching multimedia production to local middle- and high-school students this year, I learned that virtually none of them had ever touched a computer, searched the Internet, been to a movie, or watched American television. The hourly use of digital communication technologies by volunteers in many developing-world countries drives a wedge between their experiences and those of ordinary Africans. This chasm is likely to be deepened and widened by the attention paid to popular culture and social media by study-abroad students.
Obviously, communication technologies built bridges between volunteers and our adopted local culture, as well. In the time I lived in Ouidah, the Internet was put to good use to find reference materials on esoteric topics such as the nighttime wanderings of the vodun figure, Oro, and the accompanying instrumental howl of the bullroarer.
But far more often, advanced communications were negative forces in the cross-cultural experiences of the volunteers. That is largely because access to digital files and the Internet is pernicious in its allure.
Who can resist checking their Facebook account when it is merely a click and 10 seconds away? Once there, can any of us withstand the temptation to answer the instant message of our best friend back home? The faint glow emanating from volunteer bedrooms in the wee hours of the morning gave mute testament that online communication constitutes a vortex that consumes hours of a traveler's time.
Likewise, new media with compressed digital files make cultural products instantly available, and in huge quantity. Young people love their music and tend to travel with playlists reaching into the thousands. Never a day passed without my companions in Africa booting up computers, plugging in surprisingly powerful speakers, and sharing their music from home with one another and with our African neighbors.
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.
At least those moments resulted in some engagement with local people, a welcome contrast to the hours upon hours of disconnection that occurred with the consumption of film and television. Volunteers not only brought DVDs of their favorite television reruns to watch together, but also kept abreast of weekly network schedules by downloading the latest episodes of Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, and other contemporary programming.
Such troves of entertainment were simply not available in 1980, when I ventured to Mexico City, but that didn't mean that I lacked media diversions. On the contrary, Latin America was a rich environment in which to explore music, television, and film.
Unable to hunker down in my bedroom behind a computer screen, however, I was forced to ask local friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about entertainment offerings if I wanted electronic amusement. The burden of "old media" turns out to have been a rich blessing in my education. Interacting with Mexican friends is how I learned about the protest music of Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, and Mercedes Sosa, and the social and political issues motivating their songs.
The señora who rented me a room during my stay introduced me to the comedy and antics of "El Loco" Valdés, who would twist his bushy eyebrows into punkish spikes, offering a window into the zany sense of humor that forms a part of "lo mexicano." And it was through chance encounters on the city's subway system that I stumbled across "las ficheras," the hapless b-girls in popular movies that dominated the post-golden-age period in Mexican filmography.
The corrosive consequences of new communication technologies are evident when the hours spent chatting online, listening to a homegrown playlist, or watching television reruns take time away from conversing with a local friend, hearing a native song, or learning an indigenous dance or game. But access to digital technologies can be detrimental in not-so-obvious ways, as well.
Upon my arrival in Benin, I was surprised to learn of the extent and quality of mobile-phone services. Since I was to be in the country for six months, my volunteer director convinced me that investing in a cellphone was a wise idea. For $30, I purchased a new Nokia and 10 minutes of credit that could be used locally or to call home at the exact same rate.
Easy and inexpensive access to excellent mobile services in the poorest parts of the world is now commonplace. Study-abroad administrators generally see this as a positive development for health and safety reasons, and often require students to purchase a phone or SIM card with a local number as the first order of business in their foreign destinations. As with Internet and entertainment access, however, these new communication tools come at a cost not only to cross-cultural immersion but also, and more important, to the personal growth at the heart of international education.
When I studied in Mexico City in 1980, telephone access was neither easy nor inexpensive nor of good quality. Attempts to call home were infrequent, costly, and often unsuccessful, which led to feelings of isolation and vulnerability. As a consequence, the intensity and duration of "culture shock" were pronounced.
That inverse relationship between culture shock and access to communication technologies seemed to be borne out by my casual observations in Africa. Despite the stark material and symbolic differences between Africa and the developed West, all but one of the student volunteers seemed surprisingly immune to culture shock.
Admittedly, many factors may have contributed to that pattern, but, not surprisingly, the one volunteer who expressed a distressed level of isolation and homesickness also brought the fewest communication technologies and had no personal mobile phone with which to call family members and friends. Some study-abroad administrators and programmers might consider that obviation of culture shock an improvement in international education. Indeed, one of the largest American program providers markets itself with the unfortunate slogan of "more culture, less shock."
Although stressful and, frankly, painful at the time, the periods of intense loneliness and homesickness I experienced in Mexico City contributed significantly to core and treasured sensibilities such as empathy, tolerance, perseverance, perspective, and gratitude. In the rush to protect our students and our universities through the adoption of digital technologies, we unwittingly have extinguished the necessary conditions for personal transformation that justify the expense, risk, and sacrifice of study abroad.
The challenge for the study-abroad field today is to negotiate the digital world in a way that not only enhances the health, safety, and security of our students, but also cultivates the terrain for a time of unparalleled growth.
I am not optimistic regarding our abilities to effectively separate the caustic effects of digital media from the benign. The task before us calls for creativity to harness the contributions offered by new technologies and discipline for regulating their threats. We should begin developing required assignments whereby students can demonstrate how Internet access, for example, enhances their international experience in ways that were unthinkable in the days of old media.
Likewise, we should adopt policies that check computer and cellphone uses that we know undermine cross-cultural growth and understanding. Just as some academic programs enforce "language pledges" that forbid students to speak English while abroad, we should institute "media pledges" that prohibit television reruns, instant messaging, and music libraries. We should then dismiss from the program those who violate the pledge.
Navigating the new digital environment is perhaps the thorniest challenge facing the study-abroad profession, given the complexity of the relationships and trade-offs inherent in every choice we make—but the stakes are too high for us to simply ignore it.