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With technology, study abroad more connected to home

BY EMILY HOERNER | MARCH 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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When Sheila McNeill studied in Spain 36 years ago, her parents had no way of knowing how the riots in Madrid were affecting her.

But in the era of the Internet, she can now instantly find out how her own daughter is doing abroad.
Experts, students, and parents agree new technology is making it easier than ever to communicate across oceans, helping to persuade parents to support their child studying thousands of miles away.

But they also said students should be careful not to let the temptation to stay in touch with people at home interfere with their immersion into a new culture.

McNeill, 56, was in Spain in 1975 when long-reigning Generalísimo Francisco Franco died, and riots erupted in Madrid. She was far from the danger — but her parents didn’t know that until one of her weekly letters made it back to the United States. Now, she talks to daughter Michele Danno, a former Daily Iowan employee, almost every day while Danno studies in Australia.

“When you hear about the flooding in New Zealand, you’re wondering if your daughter was affected,” McNeill said. “But I could get on the phone instantly and see if she was OK.”

Skype, Facebook, and Twitter are all tools to keep students constantly connected to people back home.

“I’m also getting to experience her life there. She’s sending me pictures and Facebook stuff, and I hear about her experiences right now,” McNeill said. “My parents had to wait till I got home.”
Amid the colorful posters showcasing study-abroad programs offered at the UI Office for Study Abroad in such places as Australia, one poster at the peer-advising desk displays a bright blue, bubble letter logo branding the popular communication application Skype.

Students abroad frequently use the Internet application as a cheap alternative to using a cell phone.
UI junior Eleni Cade, 21, said she used Skype when she was abroad in Brazil and Greece to talk with her mother every few weeks and occasionally call friends back home.

“I tried not to do it too often,” she said.

That’s exactly what advisers recommend.

Lori Eiserman, a Study Abroad adviser, said that although she introduces international students to Skype and other Internet communication programs, she also stresses that they shouldn’t spend their abroad experience on the Internet.

“I think there’s that little element of seeing what you’re missing,” she said.

She said she doesn’t want students to lose sight of being abroad by continually checking into what is happening back home. Study Abroad does encourage students to write Internet blogs, letters, and postcards, she said.

UI graduate student Avi Michael, who is from Australia, said he doesn’t see his Skype use as a problem because he only speaks with people from home every two weeks.

“I think there’s a nostalgic reason for visually seeing friends and relatives,” he said.

David Perlmutter, the director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Skype has changed the culture of foreign students in a way. But while technology is great for accessibility, he said students should be mindful when using Skype and other new technologies.

“We live in a culture where it seems like we’re always on,” he said. “We are losing something in thinking and deliberating before we answer.”


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