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Preparing to study abroad, I have learned, is no easy task. Questions seem to abound off every surface: what do I need to bring? One suitcase or two? Should I bring any books for casual reading? They might take up too much space once I finish with them, but won’t I be upset if I don’t have any to read on the flight? Will I like my roommates? My classmates? Will my classes be easy, hard, or somewhere in between? What type of cell phone plan makes the most sense for while I’m there? What kind of grocery options will be available to me? Will I have a lot of down time to explore? How many weekends should I really spend traveling outside of my host city?
While it’s possible to stress out trying to find answers to all these questions – believe me, I would know – part of the fun of studying abroad is the sense of adventure that can only come with jumping headfirst into the unknown. Having definite answers to these and other questions will not fully prepare me for the journey on which I’m about to embark. I’ve decided that, while fundamentally important, questions like these do not need to be weighed so heavily. Finding additional things to worry about pre-departure will not better serve me when the time comes, in just a few short days, to board my flight to Italy.
Having acknowledged this, there is one question I cannot stop pondering: how will I maintain my relationships with friends and family back home, while still fully immersing myself in a new campus, culture, and country? Where does the line fall between being too connected to life at home and too far removed? Is there such a thing as a proper balance?
When I was 11 years old, I begged my parents to send me to a sleepaway camp. This was not just any sleepaway camp; this was a language immersion camp, for a language I did not speak, in a state I had never visited. Amazingly enough, my parents agreed to let me go. As part of the immersion experience, all things English were confiscated as “contraband” the moment of arrival. This included cell phones.
Today, I do not know many people my age able to function without their cell phones for an hour, let alone for the two-week duration of the camp. I handed my phone over on the first day of the program querulously. By the third day, I ceased to think of my phone and of the outside world (mostly). Albeit, as an 11-year-old, it was not that challenging. I had a simple flip phone and didn’t use it for much. But as I got older, and technology developed more and more, I continued going to this camp without a second thought. I didn’t dread parting with my smart phone for two weeks or a month; instead, I looked forward to it. I was able to appreciate those around me so much more without the constant distractions of email, Facebook, and social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. My experiences were more vivid and the friendships I forged more genuine. I became comfortable disconnecting from the world of constant communication created by modern technology.
I learned through this experience the power of giving all your attention to the matters immediately surrounding you. I learned that it is okay to take a break from texting. It is more than acceptable to refrain from tweeting about every minute detail of your daily life.
But there are consequences of unplugging. Students abroad are still responsible for maintaining the pre-existing relationships in their lives. There are parents with expectations about communication. There are best friends, significant others, teachers, and siblings. There are any number of people with whom you should keep in touch, who care about you, think about you, and want to know how your adventure abroad is unfolding.
So, how do you maintain these relationships without forfeiting an immersive time abroad? How do you entirely embrace your new community, while also staying in touch with friends and family back home? In all honesty, I don’t have a decisive answer. I don’t think completely abandoning my cell phone and social media – however tempting that may be – is the best solution in this case. But being glued to my phone and social platforms will certainly take me out of my surroundings. Where’s the happy medium?
It’s a balancing act that I’ll need to figure out as I go. But this blog is certainly a good place to start.