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The Do's and Don't's of Technology and Study Abroad

man on smart phone in crowded marketplace

Technology is both a blessing and a curse when studying abroad. Some go so far as to say that the digital world has ruined study abroad, but I think that’s going a bit far. I am the first to admit that my over-use of the internet during my first time studying abroad was something I wish I had done differently, but I learned from that experience and was much better about it the next time around.

Just think of the days before the internet: when people studied abroad they studied abroad hardcore. They likely didn’t hear the voice -- and definitely didn’t see the face -- of anyone they knew the entire time they were gone; they communicated through letters that took weeks, or longer, to travel back and forth. And they likely came back totally changed from their deeply immersive experience. Let yourself become one with your host country, and take it all in. Try to make it home, feel like you belong there.

Indeed, there are a number of things you can do to avoid letting technology take away from your experience. And certainly there are many ways in which technology can help enhance your study abroad experience as well. Read on for the do's and don'ts of technology and study abroad!

DON’T: Spend Too Much Time Online

I’d like to tell you to just not have internet in your dorm/apartment/housing at all, or even not to bring a computer, but I realize that’s a big ask these days. If you can go without and limit yourself to only accessing the internet during occasional internet cafe or library visits, then power to you! Not only are you ensuring that you are spending more time soaking up your host city, but you are likely to meet more people when you’re heading out into the world for your internet usage.

If you do have internet in your room or apartment, give yourself a real limit on how much time you can spend online and enforce it! Be tough on yourself, try to do just 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes to an hour a few times a week. Yes, it’s a great way to keep in touch, but the longer you wait the more interesting things you’ll have to share in those emails and Facebook updates.

You don’t need to keep up with everything going on in real time at home -- if anything, it will only make you homesick. And you don’t have to share every minute things that happens to you abroad right away.

And of course, the less time you’re spending staring at a computer screen, the more time (hopefully) you’re out exploring your host destination, meeting locals, and making memories.

DO: Keep a Blog

I just told you to limit your time on the computer, and now I’m telling you to keep a blog? Yep. But again, I’m not telling you to write a play-by-play of every moment of your time abroad. Take all that extra time you’re spending experiencing a foreign place, and pick out the most interesting stories, people, or places, and talk about them. Make it interesting, make it smart or funny or informative or eye-opening. Make it relevant, so even people who don’t know you care about what you’re saying. Make it well-written and with a sense of place. Make your readers feel like they’re there. You’ll be able to look back at this and feel like you’re back in that moment. And it will be a great thing to show for yourself once you’ve returned.

There are a number of things you can do to avoid letting technology take away from your experience. As well, there are many ways in which technology can help enhance your study abroad experience.

DON’T: Call Home Every Other Day

Maybe it’s not fair to say don’t call (or Skype) home at all, but again: limit yourself! Once every couple weeks to let your parents know you’re alive is sufficient. As for everyone else? Quick emails or Facebook messages (during your allotted time) should be plenty. Or -- here’s a novel idea! -- how about a letter or postcard? I firmly believe that people love receiving snail mail. It makes them feel special, and with a foreign stamp on there, you’re golden. Things will fall right back into place when you return home, but now is the time to immerse yourself in a new place and lifestyle, and make new friends!

On the other hand, it is not necessarily a bad thing to invest in purchasing a local phone or sim card when you’re abroad - use it for calls with all your local friends! (And if you are using your smartphone from home, DON’T spend your time on it playing games, cheating on your internet usage, and wasting time!).

DO: A Little Research

The internet can be somewhat helpful in getting the most out of your new home. Sure, it’s great to find out everything you can from people you meet out and about, but sometimes it’s difficult to get started. Searching online can be a great way to meet people or find out about events, gatherings, or cool places. A tip: change your Google to the country you’re in and search in your host country’s native language. Not only does this force you to immerse yourself just that much more, but it will return much better, more authentic results from those in the know -- the locals!

Research will come in handy prior to your trip abroad as well. Familiarizing yourself with your host country's politics, history, present, culture, and people will only provide a strong launchpad for a meaningful study abroad experience.

DON’T: Put in Those Headphones

Personally, it drives me crazy anywhere and everywhere I see people walking around (or even on public transport) with headphones in. Yes, it’s fun sometimes to pretend there’s a soundtrack to your life, but you’re missing out! In a foreign country, this goes times ten. Listen to the people around you, listen to the language (even if it’s not a foreign one, at least the accent should be different!) until your brain hurts, or finally starts to grasp things easier.

Listen instead to the sounds of the city, or the countryside, wherever you are. Create such a strong mental landscape of your surroundings that after you return home you can go back to your study-abroad home anytime you want to in your mind. And who knows, you may even hear some awesome local music that you can then go use your internet time to download and take back with you.

On a similar note, don’t spend time watching TV or movies from home. There will be plenty of time for that when you return. In my opinion, there’s no reason to ever switch on a TV set, but some might find value in watching a television show in the local language. (Though one might find just as much value going out and listening to real people speak out in public!)

DO: Take Photos and Videos

And better yet, photograph with a real camera (not your iPhone), so there’s no temptation to share immediately and snap everything you see. Instead, take the time to really analyze and understand your surroundings. Don’t take a thousand photos that you’re never going to look through again. Take deliberate shots that have meaning, that tell a story, or have a significant story or memory behind them. Pick an area of interest and look out for it to photograph -- graffiti, funny signs, cute kids, architecture, food, something! It’ll give an interesting perspective to your experience and help you open up your eyes to notice things you might not have otherwise.

Same for video -- go at it with the thought that you’re going to go home and edit it and make something worthwhile. Choose a focus or a topic and make a YouTube video or documentary about it. Interview people, capture your thoughts on video, get interesting scenes, make an effort to capture the atmosphere, the feeling, the sounds of your host city and your life there.

At the least, this can serve as an awesome memento for yourself and hopefully something that won’t bore people to death when you make them watch it. At best, this could be something significant to show for yourself -- maybe you’ll even discover a new passion (in your chosen topic, or even filmmaking itself!).

On top of it all, taking photos and videos (like keeping a blog) will force you to reflect more on your experience -- as long as you do it right, do it thoughtfully, and don’t hide behind the lens!

Follow these simple tips and you’ll be on your way to study abroad success! Power off those electronics and fully devote yourself to your new experiences in your new home. And when you actually return home, you can share all your amazing stories and photos and experiences. There will be more meaningful ones to share, and they’ll be fresh and new to everyone!

Photo Credits: WonderLane
Rachael Taft
Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, Read More...