Not all that long ago, studying abroad was a very different experience. As a student, you arrived in a foreign country, got settled in with a host family or in student housing, and tried to get over culture shock as quickly as possible. That’s still true, but there’s one key thing that has changed: technology.
“Technology has advanced tremendously over the last 30 years and it has shaped the cultural exchange experience in unimaginable ways,” writes Ronnie Higgens of Ayusa, the leading sponsor for the U.S. Department of State’s high school exchange program.
Higgens points out that technologies have helped make the process of applying for and participating in study abroad programs easier. Apps like Keith Krach’s DocuSign, for example, “have made the business of connecting people across cultures easier, faster and more secure.”
Students can now apply for study abroad programs without even having to make a trip to the local post office—they can fill out all the paperwork online, sign it digitally with DocuSign, and be done. And whereas it could often take weeks to receive and process paperwork, now it takes as little as 10 minutes. Things like this will also help cut costs and hopefully make programs more affordable for students.
Besides streamlining the application process, technology has also changed the way students communicate with loved ones back home. Several years ago a once-a-week, expensive international call home and letters every few weeks was the only communication with families that was really possible. But today, students can communicate with their families on a daily basis if they want to—thanks to the Internet and a variety of apps.
With the rise of personal laptops, home Internet connections, and Internet cafes, programs like Skype enable students to call and even have a video chat for a reasonable amount of money (and in some cases, for free). And even if the Internet connection isn’t good enough for a voice call, students can still have instant message conversations with friends and family back home.
Social media has also made study abroad a much less isolating experience. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow instant communication with many friends all at once. Students can post general updates without having to chat with each individual, and pictures can be posted in albums that show everyone just what’s happening.
And while some may lament that the study abroad experience is somewhat diminished by the fact that it’s easier to stay connected with home—and therefore not be completely immersed in the new experience—it can also help students make new friends. Students who study abroad can make basic connections with new acquaintances over Facebook, providing a common thread to get conversations started. And using Facebook, Twitter and Skype can also help the experience abroad be more enjoyable—because the student will likely spend less time being homesick if they don’t feel so isolated from everything familiar.
But it’s also important not to miss out on making new experiences, friends, and connections because you’re spending too much time chatting with friends back home on Skype.
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