Connect to the Culture, Not the Phone

By Marc Pereira, ISA Student Services Advisor

Studying abroad is an exciting time for everyone involved. Students get to explore a new culture, enroll in fun courses, and experience wonderful adventures that many people only dream about. Parents watch their children grow into well-rounded adults with unique perspectives on the world. Friends hear all of the exciting stories and get inspired to study abroad themselves, and from there the cycle keeps turning. Studying abroad is such an amazing experience that students can’t help but want to include their friends and family back home. It’s only natural to want to share something so incredible with those you love, and what’s the easiest way to do that?

By staying connected, of course.

Picking up your phone, calling home, logging into Skype for a video chat, using Whatsapp, Snapchat, and Instagram to chat while you’re on the go, or logging into Facebook to see what everyone is up to back home.


However, when studying abroad, technology can be a double edged sword. On one hand, it helps students talk and bond with those back home whenever they’d like. On the other, it disconnects students from the country in which they currently live and acts as a barrier to truly immersing themselves into the culture. Cell phones have a tendency to keep students encased in their own little “American Bubble,” and can often times make  interacting with the world around them more difficult. When students are hyper-connected they can miss out on some of the fundamental experiences that make studying abroad so exceptional.

Examples of how technology obstructs cultural immersion are well documented, but there is one experience that technology impedes that I think is absolutely essential to any study abroad experience; culture shock.

Now, I can already hear some readers asking themselves, “But isn’t culture shock bad?” and to answer those readers briefly, no, it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that it’s the most exciting part going abroad. The first few weeks of a study abroad experience are the most formative times that students will experience overseas. They will see new things they’ve never been exposed to before, meet people with different opinions and beliefs, and be put in situations that simply wouldn’t happen in their day to day lives back home. These opportunities are bountiful and each one offers the opportunity to learn something new, not only about the host country, but oneself. Of course, some of these experiences might be surprising, unexpected, or even negative and unpleasant, but in the end they are all essential in learning how to adapt to a new daily routine.

So, how do cell phones and technology obstruct culture shock? By offering students an all-too-familiar “American” space to escape to whenever they feel the need. Again, some readers are asking, “why is this a bad thing?” Truthfully, in moderation, it’s not. It’s always nice to have something familiar nearby. But how often do we really use our phones in moderation? Be honest.

Most people have their cell phones turned on 24 hours a day. So, what’s the first thing we reach for when we have a problem? The phone. It has maps of our cities, schedules for the buses, translations for foreign languages, and puts our friends at our fingertips. With something so useful, why would we ever need to talk to a local we don’t know? The phone can give us directions to the museum, it can explain the food we’re about to order, and it can entertain us when we’re bored. And herein lies the problem.

Cell phones take away from the necessity of meeting locals.

They have the potential to separate students from what makes the host country so amazing, it’s people.

Homesickness can sometimes be expected of students who travel abroad and if that’s the case then calling home for a quick catch up session can be a great solution. But studies have found that students who call home more often, or connect to Facebook on a regular basis can actually come away from those interactions feeling more homesick than they did before. This is because they are spending their valuable time in front of a computer rather than experiencing the country or meeting new friends who can help distract them from the fact that they might miss home. After all, students don’t have time for homesickness when they’re actively engaged in an adventure!


I studied abroad in Japan in 2009, in the early stages of when smartphones were really starting to gain traction in popularity, so I’ll be the first to admit that my study abroad experience was quite different than what can be expected today, but many of my experiences are just as relevant now as they were seven years ago. I went through culture shock. I had homesickness. And there were some things about Japan that I just didn’t understand, which was frustrating at times.

But I made local friends who took the time to explain things to me. They were always sure to include me in their daily adventures and helped me refine my language skills. Were there mishaps, confusion, and cultural blunders? Of course! Those mistakes were embarrassing at the time, but now they are some of my best stories from my time abroad. These experiences gave me the confidence to function on my own in a foreign country. If I got lost, I asked a local for directions. If I needed something explained, I could speak with a stranger. These are things we take for granted at home, but I never would have been able to do this abroad if I was stuck in technology the entire time.

So, how do students avoid falling into the technological trap?

Here are some tips that worked for me:

1.) Limit your time online, set a schedule, and stick to it.

When I was abroad I checked Facebook only once a day, right before I went to bed. This let me see what my friends were up to, but it was brief enough that it didn’t give me the time to feel like I was missing out on anything back home. After all, I was the one exploring the world, not them. So who was really missing out?

2.) Start a blog.

When I went abroad I started writing about my adventures, but I only posted updates every two weeks. This ensured that every time I posted I had plenty to write about, and it would be interesting to read. Don’t post too often or overshare, otherwise you won’t have compelling enough posts and your readers will lose interest. This also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences, reactions, thoughts, opinions, and even my own cultural biases, which allowed me to grow as an individual. Then I would email my blog to family and friends. This saved me from having to schedule 40 Skype dates because everyone knew what I was doing. If they had questions, they would reach out to me and we would take it from there. It really was a time saver.

3.) Bring a real camera, not a camera phone.

This tip has multiple benefits. It will ensure that your photos are better quality, and it will stop you from saying, “Let me just upload this real quick before moving on. Oh, and since I’m already online, let’s see what Sally is doing back home.” It’s a trap. Take your photos with a nice camera, pick your favorites when you get back your apartment, and upload only your best shots (Remember what I just said about oversharing?)

4.) Go explore!

This is the easiest tip of all. Go see something new and don’t be afraid to get lost. I got lost in Tokyo countless times, and you know the worst thing that happened to me? I saw even more amazing things in Japan and ate some of the best ramen I’ve ever had in shop I never would have found otherwise. It was completely worth getting turned around for!


Technology is a wonderfully useful tool to have at your disposal abroad, but always be mindful and make sure you don’t become completely dependent on it. These tips and tricks may not work for everyone, but they kept me active, busy, and involved in the community while studying abroad and gave me the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the local culture. If I had my nose buried in a laptop or phone the entire time my experience would have been entirely different and not nearly as fruitful. Meeting locals and forming those lifelong relationships is always the best part of studying abroad, so be sure not to squander that opportunity. Your phone and social media will still be there when you get back home, the new friends you make overseas won’t, so make the most of this experience and go talk to someone new! You can even text them later.

Get started on your study abroad adventure by filling out the form below and talking with one of ISA’s awesome Student Service Advisors.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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