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Study Abroad Ain’t What It Used to Be

It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago Ana Gordon Volpi and I were both in the middle of our semester abroad in Israel, she in the hills of Jerusalem at Hebrew University and me soaking up the Mediterranean sun at Tel Aviv University. Right about now I had just showed up at Ana’s apartment after a spring break in Egypt and Jordan and far removed from a shower.

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If we’d had Facebook back then, maybe I would still be in touch with some of these people.

What is even more remarkable than the fact that 20 years has passed is how fundamentally different our experiences would have been, primarily due to technology (we’ll park geopolitics in the corner for this post). Hearkening back to the 1995 study abroad experience, we had to do things like:

  • Go to a special computer lab on campus to send and receive email (so we almost never did)
  • Go to the local phone company to get our phone turned on and pay our bills (which were exorbitant, so we rarely used them)
  • Rely on printed bus schedules and maps to navigate from city to city (more often than not managing to arrive despite language and cultural barriers)
  • Rely on used copies of Let’s Go [INSERT YOUR COUNTRY HERE] to choose hotels, hostels, restaurants and attractions (which once resulted in us spending the night in a brothel in Haifa that was using its hotel status as a front)
  • Take pictures with cameras that used film and then pay to get those pictures developed (and having to wait until we returned home to share them with our friends and family)
    You know this would've gotten a million likes on Instagram.

    You know this would’ve gotten a million likes on Instagram.


    What weren’t we doing?

  • Texting our parents that we’d arrived the second our plane landed
  • Posting selfies on social networks holding [INSERT CLICHÉ LOCAL CUISINE HERE] in front of [INSERT TOURIST TRAP HERE]
  • Keeping up on what was happening back at our campuses back home or with our friends who were having their own study abroad experiences elsewhere
  • Using Google Maps and GPS to figure out where things were or double-checking that our taxi driver really was taking the quickest route to our destination
  • Listening to the same exact music on Spotify that we would at home
  • Relying on Yelp reviews before checking out a random restaurant

    In short, technology would have circumvented the immersion and isolation that came with plopping yourself into another country for six months. Sure, the American students stuck together as we explored and annoyed people in our host countries, but aside from our immediate compatriots we were not sharing the experience with anyone.

    We weren’t worried about how many people had “liked” our sunrise picture on Mt. Sinai and we felt no obligation to comment on how drunk Jenny got at the Sigma Alpha Zeta party on Saturday night. We returned home with unexpected facial hair and new worldviews able to form during months of independence from the opinions of our regular circles of friends.

    If we had smartphones, would we have even bothered to Hacky Sack among the ruins?

    If we had smartphones, would we have even bothered to Hacky Sack among the ruins?

    That’s not to say technology doesn’t bring some positives to the study abroad experience:

  • It might have been nice to delete some of those photos before getting them printed out
  • Maybe if there had been Facebook I would actually be in touch with some of those friends and traveling companions (or at least having their status updates pop up in my feed)
  • I could have looked up on Wikipedia what random old thing I was staring at instead of just saying to myself “there’s another old thing” and going about my business
  • I could have started following those random Australians from the hostel on Instagram and seen where they ambled onto next during their gap years
  • I could have sent money via PayPal to those nice New Zealanders who covered my boat fare when I came up short

    Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade in what I experienced 20 years ago and it’s sad that short of a massive power outage or maybe a trip to Antarctica my own kids will never have that type of trip. Then again, I’ll probably feel a lot better seeing their icon on the Find My Friends app and following them on their social networks instead of getting unpredictable collect calls from a payphone like my parents did.