NEW YORK — A generation ago, students on semester abroad were practically incommunicado, aside from airmailed letters and one or two calls home. These days, from the minute the plane lands, kids studying overseas are connected with home via Skype, Facebook, and messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp.
Has technology altered semester abroad by making it impossible to immerse yourself in another culture? Or does staying in touch simply increase comfort levels, easing both homesickness and parental worries?
Jane Tabachnick of Montclair, New Jersey, remembers airmailing letters to her parents when she studied in Paris for nine months at age 21, long before the cellphone era. “I knew they were worried and that they’d be waiting by the mailbox,” she said. “It seemed like an eternity between letters.”
It was different when Tabachnick’s 21-year-old daughter lived in Russia and Paris as part of her studies at Rutgers University. They often conversed by Skype or GoogleChat. “My daughter is very mature and level-headed and I’m not a big worrier, but I’m a parent, and she’s across the world, and it was just so easy to be in touch,” Tabachnick said.
On the other hand, she said, the less she heard from her daughter the better, and not because she didn’t miss her: “When I hear from her a little less, I know she’s out having fun.”
Robbin Watson was forced to give up screen time with the home crowd when her laptop was damaged during a semester in Italy six years ago, when she was 19.
“I was devastated at first, wondering to myself, ‘How will I know what’s going on at home? How will I Skype my friends?’” she recalled.
But as time went on, her experience in Rome “drastically changed. I began to go out more, no longer running home from class to hop online. I no longer thought about what was going on at college and soon, I began to not even care.”
Looking back, she’s grateful that her laptop was damaged. Her advice for semester abroad: “Get rid of your smartphone. The whole point of studying abroad is to immerse yourself in the culture, the people, the language. Once you have Skype, Facebook and constant calls from parents, I think it really takes away from the experience and becomes a huge distraction.”
Staying in touch is important to Daniele Weiss, 19, a New York University student who spent spring semester in Florence and is now in Israel for the summer. “My mom needs to hear from me every night before I go to sleep,” she said.
From Italy, six hours ahead of her parents, she’d call in the morning before her dad went to work, and then text throughout the day. She said most of her fellow American students also “stayed in contact with everybody from home. It was very comfortable and so easy. It’s not like I felt like I was missing out on the immersion. But I wanted to share things with my mom.”
She did get one snail-mailed letter in Italy from a friend back home. “That was really exciting,” she said. “Nobody does that any more. So that was a really cool moment. I Facebook-messaged her as soon as I got it.”
Jason Fischbach, 24, studied in Sydney, Australia, during his senior year at Babson College in 2010-2011, and stayed in touch with family through Facebook and Skype, though he tried to limit it: “I was able to keep myself from getting homesick, without really watering down the experience.”
But he added that others did fall into the “traps” of too much screen time: “People would get back from class and hop on Skype/Facebook with family and significant others. People would skip social outings or classes to reach back out to people at home. Evenings would be spent on social media.”
Technology helped, though, when his grandfather died during his months away. He took part in the funeral via Skype and emailed a eulogy home, which was read out loud by his brother.
“I probably would have had a different, and possibly better, experience if I’d completely disconnected for the whole time,” he said, but his family’s mourning “was not an event that I would have been comfortable missing out on.”
Annmarie Whelan, a spokeswoman for Forum Education Abroad, which develops standards for education abroad programs, doesn’t advise parents on how often to communicate with kids overseas. Some kids are more independent than others, she said. But she acknowledges that students miss out if they spend too much time online with folks back home.
On the positive side, she added, some students gain confidence dealing with unfamiliar situations if they can process the experience with someone they know.
Another plus: It’s now easier to maintain relationships with host-country families, friends and professors when semester abroad is over. The technology, Whelan said, “has dissolved the distinctions between before, during and after studying abroad.”