Are Study Abroad Blogs Ruining the Field?

studyabroadblogssarahD

studyabroadblogssarahDWe all see them.

We read them.

We tweet and share them.

Some of us even write them!

Just what am I talking about? Blog posts about studying abroad. Those often comical, lighthearted rankings, lists, and advice about the abroad experience, typically housed on institutions’ and third party providers’ blog sites, but also mainstream websites such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Thought Catalog. A few of the topics I have recently read include; lists on the “best” countries to study, reasons to ditch that Friday class and jet off to another country for the weekend, and the 10 types of people you will meet studying abroad.

I get it. These posts are meant to be silly, fun reads that are geared towards 20-year-olds about travel. Some of these articles do include good information . But it is mostly information on travel, accommodation, shopping, or food; rarely anything about academics in another country, cultural immersion, or topics of re-entry, mental health, and other not-so-glamorous aspects of studying abroad. These mainstream articles often take creative approaches and do generally help promote and make study abroad seem more accessible to interested students. But could they be doing more harm than we can initially see?

How do articles and blog posts on studying abroad, lists of advice, city rankings, memes, and other content, usually without much academic or cultural focus, affect education abroad?

Buzzfeed often posts quizzes, lists of GIFs, and short reads with a study abroad theme, such as these lists of the best and worst parts of studying abroad in Europe. And let’s be honest, these sort of posts never place much value on the actual academe or even cultural aspect of studying abroad. A recent post by our friends at GoOverseas was a ranking of the top 5 “manliest” cities for studying abroad. While male students are typically underrepresented in study abroad, this post may have just reinforced typical societal bounds on what being “male” means as far as your interests and hobbies. Back in February, Huffington Post posted an article entitled “10 Beauty Problems You Probably Had If You Studied Abroad”. The author cites tiny showers, weight gain, appliances shorting out, water quality (as in hard vs soft, not drinkable vs nondrinkable), limited wardrobe choices (but also blisters from wearing your highest heels on cobblestone streets), and not having access to the same beauty products as you do in the states as major problems for the study abroad experience. I don’t know about you, but hard water was definitely the biggest challenge in all of my experiences abroad. Finally someone is talking about these pivotal issues!

Now, I don’t want to be negative or cut other writers down. It is tough to draft new content, and you want to make every article marketable and able to attract attention amongst the endless wave of posts containing listed advice or ranked cities. But is this really how we want to paint study abroad?

Education abroad posts such as these, especially those that are mainstream and sometimes even go viral, seem to be all that people outside of the field know about international education- not to mention what sort of impression is left on prospective students. This poses a real danger for the credibility of the field, the future of funding, the value placed on global education by university faculty and administrators, and the quality of the programs in which our students participate.

These articles do little more than simply reinforce the sterotype of the “ugly American” that we at Melibee, in conjunction with Amizade, created BetterAbroad.org to address, create conversation around, and eventually combat. What is most bothersome is using the term “study abroad” to address circumstances and problems that have nothing to do with actual education abroad, but essentially are issues an individual lacking cultural competence may encounter when travelling/ partying their way through Europe (and, yes, it’s always Europe). Yes, they are fun, silly reads many people just brush off as typical of what college students studying abroad experience. But what will continual use of the “study abroad” guise in this sort of travel writing do to our field? Is it really harmless, tongue-in-cheek, easy reading? Or does it discredit education abroad programs, students, faculty, and providers, and ultimately endanger higher education as a whole? I hope that there are more responses to and questioning of these articles and, in the very least, they inspire dialogue in and out of the field.

sarah dilworthAbout the Author: Sarah Dilworth is a travel lover from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States whose passion for experiencing other cultures has taken her to over two dozen countries on three continents so far. She earned a Masters Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublin City University in 2010. Sarah has worked in the nonprofit sector facilitating cultural exchange, primary and secondary education, and is a member of the Melibee hive. She currently splits her time between Ireland and the US.

  • Lucy Moss

    This is a valid point and as blogging becomes common practice in study abroad, it is time for the organisations and providers hosting such blogs to recognise the differing types of communication taking place on blogs and decide which they wish to encourage and promote. Many blogs are
    essentially online travel diaries. Blogging provides a space for students to report and document personal experiences and is overall a platform very well suited to the study abroad field. However, as with any form of social media or platform, a student’s review of an experience may not necessarily promote the deeper values of the field and may leave professionals questioning whether the intercultural gains and unique learning opportunities taking place on study abroad are indeed taking place. I think they are, just not on these blogs. It can take months, years even, for a student to truly recognise the personal benefits from studying abroad. We don’t expect students to recognise this development instantaneously and report on this in real time, so it’s natural that student writing seen in blogs tend to be limited in scope and covers predictable topic. We may need to adjust our expectations of this type of blogging.

    Blogging can be an incredibly effective tool to facilitate guided reflection (often as part of a course and approached as an academic tool) but it needs some guidance. Effective blogging could for example involve some pre-defined themes for a student to consider in their writing. Providing some structure doesn’t limit student’s writing, it can actually swiftly transform a student’s blog from subjective reporting on daily events to deeper considerations, encouraging and stretching a student to consider their own perceptions, assumptions and judgements and reflecting on issues from alternate perspectives. By simply planting these seeds as part of blog writing, students are able to report back on events in a greater context. Moreover, if blogging is guided by faculty members, a student’s learning can be linked to wider themes and topics relating to the host society making a blog a personal experience and academic tool. Blogs can be incredibly effective in study abroad but the types of blogs desired by institutions and providers to promote the value of study abroad are very different to online travel journals and require some
    dedicated input on behalf of the educators to transform them as such!

    • Lindsay

      I love the idea of giving students a list of topics or suggestions of potential blog posts. Sometimes, it’s hard to think of what to write about apart from weekend travels or daily mishaps. Post suggestions would not only help students create content for their blogs, but promote a deeper reflection on the experience.

  • Marty Tillman

    Thanks Lucy for writing so lucidly and sensibly about this important – and under-valued topic. I think blogging has potential but is widely misused as a tool for student “reflection.” This will only work as such when the framework of social media is set up to help students reflect upon how their experiences are tied to explicit learning objectives for their study abroad experience. Problem is that in most/many cases, study abroad programs do not always align the experience with specific learning objectives and then use the blog as a tool for students to reflect on their experience in this way.

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