In the recent past, a Rome study abroad student could gaze out from the Bernardi Residence terrace, watch the harvest moon rise to illuminate the Tiber River and take solace that back home their families could see the same beacon in the night sky. This silent bond might have been one of the few shared moments they had during the semester. But much has changed in our world.
Technology has irreversibly altered the study abroad experience. I witnessed this transformation firsthand when I recently returned to Rome after five years.
Cell phones, Instant Messaging and personalized Web sites such as Facebook.com have allowed families and friends to come along on a virtual study abroad. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to detach students from their homes. Where they once were isolated and therefore more fully immersed in the daily life of their host country, students now can call classmates in St. Paul to get halftime updates on the Tommie basketball game or to find out where people are going that Friday night.
While this access to immediate communication arguably can take away from getting the full study abroad experience, Thanos Zyngas, director of the Bernardi Residence, finds the availability of technology to be both a challenge and a blessing. “Unlike five years ago, students can effortlessly stay connected to their American life. The only thing missing is their physical presence.” But on the other hand, he finds that “e-mail access also has given parents of study abroad students an opportunity to support their children in new ways.” Some stay in touch daily.
As challenging as it is for students to learn a centuries-old foreign language such as Italian, it has become ridiculously easy for them to find new ways to communicate in their own. Instead of waiting anxiously for word from a study abroad student, communication is now only an Internet connection away. One example is the increasing use of blogs (Web logs) as a way to document daily thoughts, activities and experiences. You can read nearly every detail of Mary Gibson’s year in Rome as it happens on her blog, The Roamin’ Roman (roamingroman.blogspot.com).
But Americans are not alone in their rush to stay connected. Having immediate access to loved ones is a convenience even the most rural Italians have embraced. It is not unusual to see a farmer in Umbria talking on a cell phone while perched upon a tractor seat. And the number of Rome citizens using cell phones at any given time might be surpassed only by the number recklessly riding scooters across the cobblestone streets of the capital city.
I was especially surprised to witness the use of cell phones to document what might be an otherwise sacred moment. On Oct. 17, Pope Benedict XVI and members of the Synod of Bishops gathered for Eucharistic adoration in St. Peter’s Basilica. While many visitors sat reverently in the pews, hundreds roamed the massive church with their cell phones thrust above the crowd to take photos of the new pope – something I had seen just recently at a U2 concert in Minneapolis.
So does all this interconnectivity change the study abroad experience? Just ask a student. “I actually welcomed the chance to get rid of my cell phone,” Rome Liberal Arts student Brodie Mueller said. “I like being unplugged. When you have a cell phone, people expect you to always be available. Computers are different. They make it easy to communicate, but they’re less personal than cell phones. We still need them for homework.”
What has changed is that students such as Mueller must be more deliberate about setting limits on communication. They must make a conscious decision to live in the present and take in everything their host country has to offer. Otherwise, why study abroad?