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UMBC Across the Sea: Keeping in touch with home

Years ago, studying abroad meant a near total removal from life at home. The only lines of contact available were unreliable, expensive and slow. Even as letters and telegrams gave way to long-distance phone calls, students could go months without direct contact with friends. This all changed in the age of the internet.

Now with email, social media and online video calls, being halfway around the world does not seem quite so far. Contacts that were few and far between have become daily, and the sense of isolation associated with travel has diminished greatly.

However, there is still a significant degree of control an exchange student has over how deeply they would like to embrace what remains of this sense of isolation. Many students choose to break completely from social media during their stays abroad, while others dive headfirst into the convenience of technology to stay completely connected.

Both of these approaches seem too heavy-handed. The usefulness of technology certainly is not total, nor is it nonexistent. Rather, like many aspects of the study abroad experience, this must be taken in moderation and at personal discretion.

A good rule of thumb for first starting out abroad is making sure to be in contact with home at least once a week. After a bit of this, the frequency of contact can be adjusted. If being abroad leaves a student needing more contact from home, by all means they should contact home more frequently. If a student feels too comfortable and wants to get more outside of their comfort zone, it is relatively easy to limit calls to less than a weekly basis.

Online activity is a bit more difficult to regulate, but it can be done. One easy way to do so is by getting connected on platforms used locally. For instance, the most popular social media platform in Korea is a program that is relatively obscure in the West: Kakao. Because it is extremely popular in the country, it allows a student to stay connected socially without tying themselves back home.

Obviously this does not mean abandoning other platforms during a stay abroad, but splitting time spent on social media between local platforms and platforms from back home does lead to more time spent immersed in the culture of one’s host country.

Emails are a bit trickier. It is not feasible today to wholly ignore them, as that can lead to missing anything from class announcements to bills or alerts from the study abroad office. If one hopes to go more off the grid, it may be advisable to set up an automatic response to emails expressing the circumstances of your time studying abroad. This can help preemptively explain any delays in response.

For those who would like to remain a bit more connected, it is advisable to set at least one day a week to check emails and stick to it. This solid deadline helps to prevent one from being overwhelmed by correspondence and ensures regular replies.

Essentially, communication while abroad in this day and age is what you make of it. It can be almost ever present or it can be almost nonexistent. Finding what works individually and using strategies to keep to it is the key to managing it.