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Guest Post: The 21st Century Study Abroad Student and Technology

We’re excited to welcome Tiana Tucker as our first guest blogger for the 2013-2014 edition. Tiana is the community manager for an online masters in nursing program, [email protected], from the Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences. She previously worked for the Danish Institute for Study Abroad as an Online Marketing Assistant in Copenhagen, Denmark. Feel free to connect with Tiana on LinkedIn and Twitter. Want to guest blog for us like Tiana? Let us know. 

There was a time when parents awaited the arrival of postcards and letters via snail mail from a student studying abroad. Today, communication is much more immediate with students posting a photo to Instagram or a status update to Facebook about their arrival minutes after touching down in a new country.

Social media use and consumption accounts for a much larger part of college students’ time than most other age groups. Therefore, it’s no surprise that social media continues to play a significant role in students’ lives throughout the entire study abroad experience from the moment a student receives acceptance into a program up until the student returns to their home university.

Connecting Students Before, During, and After Study Abroad

At the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, new students were invited to join a Facebook group created for their semester’s study abroad class before each semester. Pre-departure staff members monitored each Facebook group before students arrive and then handed them off to their colleagues on the student services team based in Copenhagen. Students often planned pre-departure city outings, airport gathering, and swapped stories about what they heard about the new country they would be living in during the upcoming semester. Study abroad staff members rarely ever had to chime in on conversations unless students had questions about housing, program scheduled events, or student visas, but the staff read every post. In general, the Facebook group helped the majority of students connect with one another before leaving their home university and in some cases find people to explore common interests with in their new city. Approximately 70% of the students abroad each semester would join the Facebook group, so it also benefited the organization as well in creating an alternative method for communicating information to students.

Reflection and Influence Through Blogging

A lot of students start blogs to allow family and friends at home the chance to keep up with their international adventures. Blogs are an excellent way for students to process and reflect on the interactions they have while spending time abroad.  With that in mind, we often recruited at least one student from each of our academic program to be featured on our website. Students were selected based on several criteria and we typically received more than 100 applicants for about 20 available positions.

Our bloggers were our storytelling superstars who became the face of their academic program for the duration of their time abroad. Each student blogger still owned their blog on whatever platform they selected in any style they desired. We only encouraged students to cover certain topics and provided them with an official student blogger badge to embed on their blog. Accepted students and those who were considering attending our program often consulted student blogs at some point in the decision making process. Some university study abroad advisors even used our students’ blogs as points of reference for students thinking of going abroad, but who wanted a clearer picture of what it was like to study abroad. Full year student bloggers regularly mentioned how new semester students often approached them and would complement their blog or attribute it as a reason why they decided to enroll.

Technology Proliferation and the Increase in Study Abroad Students

The number of U.S. students studying abroad today is three times the number of students who studied abroad two decades ago, according to research from the Institute for International Education. Word of mouth, both traditional and digital via unpaid online promotion, in addition to advances in communication technology has played a huge role in the increase in undergraduate students deciding to study abroad. A lot of our students referenced friends who studied abroad with our program before they applied that they remembered keeping up with on Facebook via status updates and photos as a factor in their interest in going abroad. The same students would also describe how friends who had gone abroad in previous semesters would return to campus raving about their experience studying abroad.

While some study abroad and higher education professionals criticize the proliferation of technology and the negative effects it has on U.S. students studying abroad, I don’t entirely agree. No one can expect students to completely unplug in the age of information, where millennials are used to being connected. I do agree that excessive use of social media and other communications tools can diminish the study abroad experience, but it can also be good when used in moderation. As long as students keep in mind that studying abroad is about relishing moments to step outside of their comfort zone to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture, then valuable life lessons in culture will happen.

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