Recently over 3,000 people gathered to roam the cyber halls of the inaugural Virtual Study Abroad Fair hosted by the U.S. Department of State, College Week Live, and the Institute of International Education. This online event got me thinking about whether or not technology actually can make it easier for different people around the globe to truly connect, share resources, and exchange ideas. There are those of us who would complain about the depersonalization caused by social media and the divide that digital media creates between individuals and real life experiences. And I have, on occasion, wondered if my constant internet use, emails, and social media posts have put distance between myself and everyone else in the world.
However the virtual study abroad fair seemed to present the possibility of a different paradigm—a way to create a space where a large number of stakeholders, who would otherwise have difficulty connecting, could come together to share information that was once concentrated in certain geographical areas or socio-economic circles.
A quick look at the demographics of the participants shows a diversity that would be impossible to recreate in person. Attendance came from all over the United States, with the highest representation hailing from California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and New York and Illinois, Ohio, and Georgia close behind. Given that a large number of students who search for preliminary information about study abroad online, this wide-reaching approach may be instrumental in helping international educators reach a more diverse student population, and one that is more representative of the total population enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. With today’s limited resources, using this type of technology could help access a whole new group students that traditional outreach strategies have failed to reach.
While this new medium can’t replace the close connection and mentoring that comes from in-person advising, in terms of reaching the goal of IIE’s Generation Study Abroad to double the number of students studying abroad within the decade, combining innovative technology in tandem with traditional forms of outreach and advising will be essential. It will take these types of innovative ideas and creative concepts to reach the goal. In the end, we hope that these interactions that started off through virtual booths, video conferencing, and instant messaging turn into genuine experiences of cultural exchange.