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Why All Study-Abroad Students Should Connect With Classrooms Back Home

I am often asked how to create global connections for K-12 classrooms. Today's post by Peter Bittner, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, '17, explores an underutilized—and free—resource: undergraduate students studying abroad. How powerful would it be if they each committed to sharing their experience with one classroom?

By guest blogger Peter Bittner

"Young people need to understand the worldwide circulation of ideas, products, fashions, media, ideologies, and human beings," Dr. Howard Gardner, famed developmental psychologist, asserts in the preface to Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World. Now more than ever, U.S. schools of all levels are recognizing the need to alter and even re-design their curricula in order to impart upon students the vital concepts and skills necessary to function in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and multicultural world.

Empowering through Technology
The recent post, Technology Ideas and Tools to Connect Students to the World, surveyed a variety of innovative platforms and programs for teachers to facilitate students' active engagement with global issues and audiences. A common idea among the projects and products described was that technology was not merely a new means of teaching traditional core subjects like geography or history; nor was its sole purpose to develop modern skills relevant to our quickly-evolving, digitized world. Going a step further, each learning tool exemplified a refreshingly interactive and dynamic approach to learning focused on building bridges; creating dialogue between the classroom and the outside world. Forget pen pal programs. Blogging, videoconferencing, and coding are today's ways to empower students of all ages to invest in their education by interacting with people far beyond the walls of the classroom—and often a world away.

As a veteran volunteer travel correspondent with Reach the World, a program connecting collegiate travelers with classrooms of underprivileged primary and secondary-school students, I am a firm believer that undergraduate study abroad students—along with their sending institutions—should partner with classrooms in their home country while overseas, which is now easily accomplished using technology tools.

Connecting with Classrooms
005 (4).jpegWhile living in Mongolia last year and teaching English as a Fulbright Fellow, I blogged regularly about my experiences in coordination with a STEM classroom in Brooklyn, New York. Covering topics such as transportation, nature, daily life, and travel budget management, I wrote a series of journals, field notes, and logbook entries tailored to align with the students' curriculum. Additionally, I took photos to accompany each entry/lesson and held three Skype videoconferences with my students to answer their questions about my adventures. ("Do people really eat horses there?!"... "What does it taste like?") It was fun, enriching, and motivating for me and my students.

Here are three important reasons why I recommend participation in similar programs to all those studying abroad:

1) It helps drive cross-cultural engagement and exploration on the part of the student traveler by providing extra incentives to take necessary risks in order to get outside of one's "bubble."
As Stacy Nevadomski Berdan, author of Raising Global Children wrote recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Many of the [study abroad] students...increased the amount of time they spent with fellow Americans and on social media with friends and family back home—the opposite of what they should have been doing." While many study abroad students depart with hopes of picking up a language quickly and effortlessly and seamlessly integrating into the local culture, living abroad as an outsider can be a very difficult experience. Fearful of taking social risks, many study abroad students migrate towards the familiar members of their own culture and squander opportunities to interact with locals. Assignments requiring experiential knowledge of a foreign culture help to mitigate this. 

2) It creates a structured framework and space for reflection and processing while abroad, encouraging students to dig deeper beyond the surface layers of colliding cultural icebergs.
Personally, I think recording thoughts and experiences in a journal is an important tool to gain self-knowledge regardless of the context. However, it wasn't until I went to Mongolia and started blogging for Reach the World that I realized the themed assignments for my middle school class served as excellent learning tools to help me better understand the foreign culture within which I was operating daily—and SHARE it with captive audiences, too! The assignments required a degree of self-reflection, objective analysis, and—gasp!—even outside research. Most importantly, writing for a lay audience back home necessitated contextualizing my experiences within my own culture's belief systems, norms, and practices, forcing me to reexamine many of them in the process. Re-reading the posts afterwards, especially after re-entry, and in the process revisiting the moments of discovery, challenge, and excitement has been fun. Some study abroad programs require journaling but, sadly, most don't. [Well-known traveler, author, and TV host Rick Steves is also a proponent of keeping a journal as one travels.]

3) It provides students overseas with a healthy way to share with friends and family back home, substituting for unhealthy amounts of social media interaction (a big problem!).
In our current era of hyper-connectedness, many study abroad students are finding modern communications technologies, especially social media, distracting and addicting. Being constantly connected to a screen (laptop, tablet, phone, etc.) linking one to those back home prevents any serious investment in one's experiences in the present and, consequently, reduces the enjoyment of travel. It can be tough for some students to walk the fine line between tweeting every five minutes about the amazing things they're doing abroad and losing complete contact with their loved ones. Being obligated to write weekly blog posts designed to chronicle one's adventures, be informative to lay readers, and read in a non-narcissistic tone is great for everyone involved.

There are many other reasons students benefit from linking up with classrooms back home while abroad, particularly because connecting with captive student audiences through multimedia work is FUN! Partnerships between educational institutions and organizations like Reach the World and others are great ways to provide valuable experiences to both generations of students.

As college and university study abroad programs cut back on structured pre-orientations, in-country services, and re-entry retreats due to prohibitive costs, many will likely see the clear benefits of integrating such affordable, often free, programs into their curricula to add value to students' experiences. At the same time, primary and secondary schools across the country are being forced to tighten budgets and cut "non-essential" programs due to restrictive test-centric educational performance goals; partnering with outside non-profits is often the only chance students have of global engagement. When innovative partnerships capitalize on communications technologies for education, everyone wins!

Follow Peter, Reach the World, Heather and Asia Society on Twitter. 

Photo: The author and his supervisor, Enkhee, celebrate Tsaagan Sar, the White Moon Celebration in traditional "deels". Courtesy of the author.

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