Remember the thin, blank blue sheets we used to buy in foreign post offices? The rectangle already had wing panels to fold in and was appropriately stamped “Aérogramme” on the outside. For a flat rate, the traveler could write a letter home, seal the flaps over the inner rectangle and drop it in the mail. It weighed next to nothing and marked us as more than postcard tourists if less than natives. We sometimes got home before our letters arrived.
This is not a nostalgia essay.
Today’s study abroad industry thrusts more than 300,000 American students onto planes heading to industrialized nations and occasionally to the safer enclaves of less prosperous ones. Engaging with foreign languages and cultures is the announced goal, with English-speaking countries the preferred destinations of the cautious. This may be the first trip abroad for some American college students or even their first time on an airplane. Others are seasoned travelers, if still culturally inexperienced.
They are all festooned with multiple digital devices.
Today’s study abroad explorers may leave their home country but not leave home at all. Thanks to cheap international data plans and smartphones in their pockets, millennial Americans seldom say goodbye to familiar friends, family and online comforts as they set out to experience life in a different country. Can a digital native ever go native?
The implied comfort of a digital cocoon is what entices some students to undertake the foreign travel they never would have considered half a generation ago. And the reassurance is not just implied. Some study abroad offices issue cheap flip phones purchased in country so students can be in constant contact with their academic and legal guardians. Professors preload travel instructions and course materials onto websites. If those sites go down, study abroad courses often grind to a halt.
Long forgotten are the exertions of making international calls by pay phone and calling cards -- not to mention those cheap blue Aérogramme sheets. Liability considerations control many aspects of institution-sponsored foreign travel. Insistence on continuous digital access is the safety net for a large part of the organizers’ legal concerns. In some programs, refusing to carry a charged cell phone is a scoldable offense.
Don’t blame the college, either. Today’s helicopter parents are much more likely to support their children’s desire to spend a summer or semester abroad if they are ensured constant connectivity via smartphones and tablets. They know their son or daughter will forget to make a call, but Mom and Dad will refuse to underwrite a trip if their kids cannot take a call, or at least be geolocated.
And today’s millennials are adept social engineers, having successfully retrofitted their parents to be as needy about technology as they are. Even Grandma wants to read the blog about Florence, Brisbane or Calcutta -- and is planning on getting a virtual tour from her intrepid young traveler once the program is over.
Yet we’re starting to realize that wearing a digital helmet undermines precisely the reasons we take students to foreign places in the first place. They’re still texting the same circle of American friends, still posting to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They may superficially engage with the culture that surrounds them, glancing at surfaces, wincing at strange foods, seeing crowds of natives and talking about them online. The problem is not just one of forging genuine connection, although lingering in an English digital environment is certainly a major obstacle to linguistic and cultural immersion.
Technology closes doors for our students as much as it opens them. It’s armor you can’t take off. When we walk streets without purpose, loiter in parks and open spaces, sit and watch a new world go by in cafes and restaurants that lack the trappings of home -- these are the experiences that today’s digital adepts are missing. They arrive in geographically distant places tethered to intractable habits involving their devices. Why try to tap into the pulse of a foreign city when familiar friends and entertainment are only a finger tap away?
Our students’ addiction to the virtual undercuts the personal growth that comes from reflection and even loneliness. Studying abroad is valuable precisely because of the discomforts students confront in foreign environments that lead to lasting insights into the daily cadences of life in new places. Touch and taste, leisure and loneliness, fatigue and friendship -- each is lived in the flesh, not in pixels.
Formative moments shaped by solitude, chance, serendipity and wonder risk being lost when social media provide a plasticized sense of safety. Unwilling to drop their digital routines, or at least minimize use of their devices, students miss out on opportunities that come from living in an environment not curated by technology. The untechnologized undergrads of yesteryear used to ask a local to take their photograph. Why reach out to a fellow human when a selfie stick does its own reaching?
Foreign experiences increasingly are measured in likes rather than nondigital memories. Awareness of the very fragility of memory is a strange benefit of travel abroad. Emerging in its place is a worrisome form of drive-by tourism often marked by narcissism, voyeurism and guarded detachment.
An enduring attribute of foreign study is the very quality that ties it to liberal education: the ability to broaden perspectives through cultivating lifelong learning. Curiosity about culture and difference requires a commitment to immersion and the deep changes that can come from a disconnection from the familiar. We need to urge our students to turn off their devices -- and to keep them off. We must show them that a digital detox while abroad will lead to richer, more lasting experiences. To truly leave home requires leaving one’s digital self behind.
How to get our students to take off their digital helmets? Denying all access would be impractical, impermissible and perhaps emotionally destabilizing. Digital junkies can’t go cold turkey, and neither can their equally addicted parents.
But how about requiring our students to carry a phone but promise not to consult it more than once a day? We might reward them for the fewest log-ins on social media or craft for them a site-specific scavenger hunt of microlocations (the sheep pasture closest to the cathedral) and cultural experiences (a dinner of only Chinese insect snacks) that could never be Googled onto a checklist. Those blue airmail sheets have morphed into blogs and online journals that can be guided writing exercises that we ask undergraduates to start in hard copy.
Restoring the “raw abroad” can provide the jolting strangeness we long for our students to have. And that means urging that the digital visor be lifted up out of sight.
George Greenia teaches Spanish and is founder of the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William & Mary. Jacob H. Rooksby teaches law at Duquesne University and co-directs summer law programs in Germany and China.
Every day, I see two people having lunch with one another, both glued to their cellphones, not talking. And I cannot help but think: something valuable is being lost. What is the point of scheduling a lunch date with a friend when your attention is somewhere in digital la-la land?
Working on a college campus, I see many situations like this. Someone forgets their cellphone at home and suddenly it seems as if the earth is crashing down. Cellphones have become the new-age security blankets.
I recently took a group of students on a community-building trip to play mini golf, and they were more preoccupied with taking photos, and posting them to Instagram, than they were actually able to enjoy playing the game. Declaring to the world, online, about their fun day at mini golf trumped engaging in conversation and laughter with those who were there right beside them. In that moment, I witnessed how cellphones have changed the in-person human-interaction landscape.
We cannot blame these students entirely, as this is their norm. On average, a person checks his or her smartphone 150 times per day. Nielsen Media Research has dubbed those born after 1990 and who have lived their adolescent years after the 2000s Generation C, in large part because of their constant connectivity to all digital things. Students who are now entering our colleges' and universities' doors simply don’t know life without cellphones, iPads and laptops. And cellphones are not all bad. These gadgets help college students easily keep in touch with families who may be far away and give students access to campus resources to help navigate the complexities of their new college life.
Yet we all pay a price -- and one that is hard to see, as the damage usually takes place within people. But that does not mean it is any less real. As a master’s student at the University of San Francisco, I have been studying the impact that cellphones have on student engagement. Research has shown cellphone use changes brain activity, negatively impacts one’s ability to identify nonverbal cues and our empathy for others, and can increase risk of depression, anxiety and stress.
And just as concerning, authentic in-person conversations happen less frequently. So while students today may argue that a cellphone is just an object, we who work at colleges and universities can argue otherwise.
In fact, along with their diploma, college graduates should take with them useful skills that they will use in their everyday lives. As educators, it is our job to teach students to think about their relationship to their cellphones and other gadgets. If we care about the livelihood of our current and future generations of students, we need to make teaching healthy digital boundaries a priority on our campuses.
For instance, colleges and universities should consider creating workshops and resources that teach students such boundaries. Liberty University in Virginia is an example of a pioneer in that area. This year, as a part of the university’s academic and advising support services, Liberty launched the nation’s first Center for Digital Wellness with the purpose to “raise awareness about the dangers of digital overuse and saturation.”
The center has organized innovative events including a Digital Detox retreat, where students spend a weekend at a camp with no Wi-Fi access. The center also provides students with a variety of resources such as a digital wellness quiz and a digital wellness challenge that encourages students in concrete ways how can change their daily behaviors using technology.
In addition, a student-led Reclaim Conversation campaign on that campus encouraged students to go out and talk about the importance of face-to-face conversations for happy lives and healthy relationships. Even in its early stages, students at Liberty have already seen changes in their own behavior, how they see others and their relationships with their friends and communities.
The center’s webpage highlights student testimonies on how involvement in the center’s programs has helped enrich their relationships and their ability to self-reflect and be engaged. As one student notes, “My digital life is different now because I have increased my intentionality of making friendships a priority over spending time online. So I have to be more efficient with time to have space for meeting a friend for coffee or spending time in a conversation. It is worth it. I need rich relationships.”
One might argue that it’s too late to try to teach healthy digital boundaries at the college level and that it should instead be addressed in elementary and secondary school. I agree this issue should be dealt with at an earlier age, and I encourage K-12 educators to start thinking of ways they can teach our youth about it. For now, I challenge those of us in higher education to take a lead on dealing with this pervasive issue on our campuses.
While your institution may not have enough fiscal or human resources to build a physical Center for Digital Wellness like at Liberty, you can start in small ways. You can make changes to your student employee handbook for your office, and you can make a change to the office environment. Use your student employee handbook to teach skills of professionalism and tell students to put away their cellphones during work shifts to be more attentive to their work and those whom they are serving.
You can also carve out a portion of the new student orientation program to raise awareness of the issue. Try replicating SoulPancake’s experiment Take a Seat -- Make a Friend to get students talking with one another, and see how much more they learn about their peers without their phones. By doing such an activity, students can experience firsthand the potential upside to unplugging their phones. That can set the tone, telling students to rethink how they show up and participate in campus activities throughout the school year. In these ways, new students can start their college experience on a positive foot while truly engaging with their fellow classmates, as well as faculty and staff members.
In short, we all need to start thinking, start talking and start listening to one another on our campuses. Let’s all put down our damn cellphones.
Jadelin Pikake Felipe is a student services specialist at Stanford University's Archaeology Center and formerly director of enrollment management operations at Menlo College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.