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How Social Media Can Enhance Study Abroad

The following is a guest post from Mandy Reinig, director of international education at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
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A view of Galway Bay in Ireland.

A view of Galway Bay in Ireland.

A debate was started recently about whether social media has hurt study abroad, in part prompted by a commentary in The Chronicle. While I agree that technology has changed the way we look at study abroad and the way students interact while overseas, I don’t agree that it will lead to fewer cultural or transformative experiences for students while abroad.

Social media has changed the way students interact and the way we, as international-education professionals, interact with students before, during, and after their time abroad. What I don’t think social media has done or will do is prevent those students who want a cultural experience from achieving it.  As was mentioned in some of the comments following the commentary, there have been and always will be students who treat study abroad as more of a vacation and go abroad simply to travel rather than for the academic or cultural experiences.

However, there have always been and will continue to be students who go abroad for cultural and academic reasons and understand that they need to work to immerse themselves in another culture to really be able to understand it.

One important aspect that often goes unmentioned is how social media can be harnessed to assist students in integrating and understanding their host culture. This doesn’t mean demonstrating to them how to use social media more but how to use it in more effective and appropriate ways. For example, social media can help students do research about their host countries and cultures prior to their departures. They can also connect with local students before they even get there to make the transition easier and to assist them in integrating.

Another means of using social media is to connect students who want to go abroad with students who are already overseas. For example, every month my office hosts an information session to talk to students about studying abroad and the process in general.  We usually try to include students who have returned from study trips, but we have also used Google Hangout to include three students in three different countries. The students at St. Mary’s were able to see and hear what their peers were actually doing abroad, which was much more effective than me telling them the same thing.

What’s more, we use Facebook groups to help keep students connected to our college while in a foreign country as well as check in with them. One of the complaints students have had in the past is that they feel disconnected from the campus and forgotten as soon as they leave the country. They want to feel like they are still part of the college community even when they are thousands of miles away. Facebook, among other things, has allowed us to make that possible.

This is not to say that students don’t need to disconnect from social media every once in a while. This is true for all students, not just those who study abroad. However, in my mind, it is up to us as educators to teach students the importance of stepping away from the computer, tablet, and smartphone and digging in. All my pre-departure orientations include a section on dealing with homesickness. My suggestion for this is always not to turn to Skype and social media but instead to step outside and go to a cafe or museum and experience the host culture. Most students give me weird looks when I say this but really understand what I mean when they experience homesickness during their study-abroad program, which almost all students go through at some point. I tell them this because being reminded of what they are missing rather than enjoying the new experiences they have the opportunity to have doesn’t help with homesickness.

In the end, social media isn’t going away. This means social-media pledges and other means of forcing students to limit their Internet use really won’t change anything. Instead we, as educators and international-education professionals, need to find means of harnessing this technology to make it beneficial to the overall study-abroad experience as well as teaching students the importance of appropriate social media use and of integrating into the host culture and way of life.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia photo by Tom Murphy]

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