Editorial: Reflections on a semester abroad in Spain
I recently arrived back home to New York City after spending a semester studying abroad in Granada, a southern Spanish city set below the Sierra Nevada mountains. It lies about an hour drive away from the Mediterranean coast.
Now that I’m back home, many friends ask, “How was Granada?” Each time, I answer with a carefully thought out, “it was relaxing, and I’m happy to be home.” That’s the truth.
Granada’s culture values relaxation and the avoidance of stress above anything else. As a native New Yorker, it was surprisingly difficult to adapt myself to this foreign city life. I say that I’m happy to be home because New York is comfortable for me. I was molded by stress, deadlines, and restlessness — much different than what moves most Granada natives. Granada wasn’t conducive to the lifestyle that I’ve cultivated throughout my life, and I had a hard time adjusting myself to a new overseas setting. In fact, I never fully adjusted, and I’m not afraid to admit that.
In recent years, I’ve noticed that social media has profoundly transformed the experience of studying abroad. In the past, I imagine that it would have been a highly personal and transformative experience. Though studying abroad may maintain some of its transformative powers, it has shifted fundamentally from an internal experience to an external.
When most students spend a semester abroad, they’re anxious to change their profile picture to something exciting and exotic that will demand plenty of likes (a picture with a camel or next to Big Ben, for instance). They’re typically eager to update their Facebook profiles with posts about what an amazing, life changing time they’re having abroad, and to fill their Instagram with filtered pictures of their travels and daily adventures.
However, when you incorporate so much social media into your daily life in a foreign country, you’re clutching onto a significant amount of your life back home and not truly exposing yourself to your host culture. You remain attached to the news and gossip back home, you keep in contact with your friends and family, and you always have a crutch in your palm to help navigate and demystify new settings: the smartphone.
Can you truly assimilate into and understand a new city, if you carry your life back home everywhere with you on your smartphone or laptop? What is the value of spending a significant amount of time in a new culture, if you apprehend this new culture entirely through the lens of your smartphone and your life back home?
To truly assimilate into and actually experience a new culture, you have to detach from your home culture entirely and leave yourself vulnerable to the elements of foreign tongues, strange cuisines, and new faces. This cannot be done if you don’t change your relationship with social media while abroad and disconnect from it entirely. Studying abroad should be a personal experience with the time and space for internal dialogues and self-exploration. It’s not just another opportunity to live through your smartphone and share your daily undertakings with the world.
What is the cost of living in an always-connected world that makes it possible to live in a new culture, while still carrying with you a piece of your home culture?
How do you think social media has reshaped and redefined experiences like study abroad? Share your ideas below in the comments section or on Twitter @ryanlawlessness.