Georgetown is a school that rightly prides itself on its study abroad statistics. While nationally a measly 1% of American students participate in international education programs, Georgetown undergraduate students embark on summer, semester, or academic year programs at an astounding rate of close to 60% (The Hoya, 2011). Even beyond the Hilltop, Hoyas participate in post-graduate forms of international work and study such as the State Department’s esteemed Fulbright Program in droves. Given its location in D.C, the School of Foreign Service, and renowned language programs, Georgetown’s strong international network is hardly surprising. While the national participation rate lags behind, however, international programs have greatly increased in prominence in recent years, with enrollment rates more than tripling over the past two decades. During the 2009-2010 academic year, a total of 270,604 American students studied abroad for academic credit (IEE).
But as the study abroad experience becomes more widely accessible and valued, how is it impacted by the twin phenomena of globalization and digitization? Are student experiences lessened by the pervasive Internet access and the growing, global prevalence of English that characterize the modern era, or have digital technologies enriched and enabled cultural, linguistic, and academic learning abroad?
It’s been almost eight years since I lived overseas, but I’ve found myself reflecting on these questions frequently over the past few weeks due to two Fulbright scholar friends of mine from Georgetown. The first, one of my former roommates, recently embarked on a research project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she will spend the next nine months interviewing recipients of microfinance loans, perfecting her Portuguese, and serving as an unofficial cultural diplomat. During the two weeks since she left for foreign shores, we have exchanged emails daily, conversed via gchat several times each week, and on one occasion, used Skype to videochat. For American millennials, none of these activities are particularly newsworthy, but access to these now mundane forms of communication–which traverse national, linguistic, and cultural borders with ease–has only become possible in the last few years, especially in a rapidly developing country like Brazil.
My second aforementioned friend returned from a Fulbright scholarship in China about two years ago, a country that she had previously lived in during a gap year between high school and college with School Year Abroad, one of the premiere and longstanding international programs for American high school students. She emphasized the dramatic transformation accomplished during the mere four years in between her expat stints, noting that Beijing is now so international and wired that it has become possible to avoid immersion into Chinese culture altogether–arguably the primary goal of any international experience–if one so desires, or even fails to put in the appropriate effort. As a fellow alumna of SYA (albeit its Italian, rather than Chinese branch), I can attest to a similar phenomenon. While eight years ago few Italians had even dial-up Internet access in the comfort of their homes, they’ve recently entered a brave new, Apple-centric world. During a visit to the U.S. last summer, my former host family touted iPhones in hand, using them to make international calls on a whim and post pictures of their American adventures on Facebook in real time.
Despite the powers often attributed to them, digital communication technologies and social media are not inherently positive or negative: their value is derived from the actions of the user. Thus, while constant access to the Internet can hinder international immersion through continuous access to a student’s life back in the U.S., this same access can facilitate the emerging phenomenon of virtual study abroad made possible through blogging and social media. At Georgetown, the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network is a model program for networking centered around the study abroad experience, connecting Georgetown students across countries and continents in an online conversation about the role of religion, culture, and politics in their various host countries. As friends, family, and peers read about the student’s life overseas, they, too, take part in the international experience. While the temptation to remain online and plugged in should be balanced with plenty of offline cultural immersion, students’ use of technology has a large role to play in the spreading of intercultural awareness and “global citizenship.”
(2012). Open Doors Data: U.S. Study Abroad. Institute of International Education. http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/US-Study-Abroad/All-Destinations
Zhang, L. (2011, November 17). Study Abroad Numbers Stable. The Hoya. Retrieved from: http://www.thehoya.com/news/study-abroad-numbers-stable-1.2706492#.T2JDocwjioZ