The Disconnect of 1995 vs The Total connect of 2017
In coming full circle, from student exchange to developing The Global Student, I have been reflecting on the differences between our experience in 1995 and those of students in 2017. My team and I now provide a number of kinds of experiences for young Aussie university students, and together with the universities that send them, try to pre-empt the challenges they will face and prepare them for these. (I often wonder what impact we are having not only on the experience but on their learning in doing so, but that is another post!)
As pioneers of Global Mobility in Thailand, along with the many other exchange students travelling to exotic countries where English was not the main language, the challenges were many. In preparation for the program, our academics had visited the university and were able to give us an idea of what was expected and who our key people would be. We took Thai lessons at St.Leo’s in Box Hill, and boarded a plane armed with about as much cultural knowledge as someone who has a favorite Thai restaurant.
Our chosen accommodation was sparsely furnished ie it had a bed and dressing table. No linen was provided, there was no kitchen so no cooking tools, crockery and cutlery, and definitely no TV. We took ourselves off to a local market and purchased the basics with our limited Thai and a lot of pointing and signing. We became experts at re-purposing disposable items such as cups and plates, and became very creative at purloining others - sorry KFC – we couldn’t purchase butter knives anywhere! The lack of a refrigerator meant we had to purchase milk daily, so my 8 year old daughter Alicia would wander over to the old man across the road each morning and make her purchases in Thai, along the way engaging with the doorman, security guards and other student residents, most of whom had little English.
The lack of appliances such as a stove or kettle resulted in us adapting to local food more readily than we might have, although Dani did purchase a tiny electric stove for her weekly pasta (Italian heritage of course) and Justin was known to frequent KFC. We mostly washed our clothes in the bathroom in a bucket and hung them over the balcony to dry, at the mercy of the elements, both monsoon rain and Bangkok pollution. No TV meant that we spent time talking to each other, and the other Thai students resident in our building. It enabled us to practice our Thai, learn about the culture and to reflect on what we were experiencing. We became quite engaged with our fellow residents and developed close relationships, most of which sadly didn’t survive beyond the next few years. Perhaps if we had had Facebook?
The most challenging aspect of the experience for all of us was in maintaining contact with home - parents, partners and friends. Letters could take 7- 10 days if they arrived at all and often crossed over which was frustrating. (Alicia’s Grade 3 class wrote her letters which the Teacher packaged up and sent – they never made it) We read each other’s letters and got to know each other’s families and friends, who we felt we already knew if they came to visit. And calling home at $3 per minute was for emergencies or periods of extreme homesickness. Justin however, used to take himself off to a computer lab where he used something called ‘email’ to communicate with his girlfriend. Such a geek! Well, we knew that would just be a passing fad! Haha…
For me personally the experience provided the opportunity to examine my life in close detail, and to reflect on the many similarities and differences not only of being a student, but of being a parent. I spent many evenings on the rooftop watching the lightning flash across Bangkok, sometimes writing, often in tears, reflecting on episodes of my life, including the death of my father the previous year, that until then had not been given due consideration.
As a group, we read newspapers and watched local dramas and news reports, and discussed these with our local peers. Laughing at poorly produced local dramas we would critique them according to our university media studies assessment. We discussed with friends the habit of newspapers printing photos of dead bodies, and accused felons, and why that was not practiced in Australia, which provided interesting insights into the Thai culture. Through conversation we sought understanding, through reading we sought knowledge, making ourselves vulnerable to new experiences provided enlightenment, and each day presented an untold number of learning experiences. We learnt about Buddhism, and the infinite patience of Thai’s in the face of their traffic woes; we began to understand Asian cultural values of filial piety and family first, comparing those with our own immediate relationships; our personal views on sex and intimate relationships were challenged by our peers who only had US sitcoms as a guide on these matters.
One of the things that today’s mobile students will never understand is the delicious sense of anticipation, the excitement of the chance of a letter, rushing into the apartment lobby and casting an eye over the noticeboard for an aerogram or a letter emblazoned with many colorful stamps! There was no greater feeling, and possibly still isn’t, of that emotional connection with someone in a distant city who took the time to write. Or of the real luxury of a phone call. And waiting to get your photographs back from the film processing shop, to see how they turned out. And the disappointment when they didn’t! Missing the birthdays or other special occasions with family and friends – a few photos in the mail with a few paragraphs about what we missed. Waiting to see photos of a new haircut, a new car, a party we missed. None of it compares with being able to skype in, see a party through 50 photos on FB, have people call directly from the party for free, drunk and full of “missing you’s”.
Contrast with today’s global students, who have instant access to their entire community at home through changes in technology and communication – photographs vs snapchat , Instagram and FB; lining up to spend $3 per minute vs skype, facetime and viber; chatting via FB messenger or whatsapp – smartphones, and personal computers have changed the entire experience. Today’s students expect to be able to have immediate communication with those at home, and the most common complaint from program participants is about the quality of the internet service at their accommodation.
Many students spend many hours per week online with those at home, which may provide some opportunity for reflection, but it can mean their support network is located back home rather than in the host country. Some students contact their mothers with any ache or pain, despite being advised during orientation of processes for their own health management, simple or complex. Not only does this worry parents unnecessarily, it means that they may receive advice contrary to local contexts. This advice on health or other issues can sometimes exacerbate the situation they may be facing, as those advising may have little or no understanding of the experience in country, or the culture that the student is trying to navigate. This can mean that students engage less with in-country support services or local hosts, thus not obtaining a fully immersive experience.
Another thing missing for many students is the opportunity to experience the adrenaline rush of vulnerability. Having to trust hosts and new friends whose expectations of a good time might not match yours; printed bus maps instead of google maps or waze; taking a leap of faith that someone might speak English, and having to work everything out yourselves. Today’s students have pre-departure, orientation, are often accompanied by a staff member even briefly, can research using google or trip advisor, have emergency medical cards and in many instances a dedicated team leader or program coordinator on the group to respond to any moments of anxiety or uncertainty. I sometimes wonder if, in our desire to manage risk and prepare them for any situation, that we are not allowing them to face certain challenges that allow personal growth. The more we tell them, the greater their expectations, and the more they seem to ask instead of researching themselves.
We say that we are providing “life changing experiences” but sometimes I wonder how much this occurs for those in short term experiences who maintain constant contact with those at home. And in providing detailed pre-departure information, and then a further orientation that duplicates most of the pre-departure, having access to 24-7 emergency support, immediate opportunity for translation from in-country program coordinators, access to technology that allows instant contact with family and friends at home, are we providing enough opportunity for students to meet challenges and build resilience on their own? In feedback obtained from one program, when asked about what further things should be included in the information at orientation, one student said she would like to have known how to use a squat toilet! True story – and after every minute question is asked and answered, what is left of the adventure.