Inside our program house, nestled in the foothills of Nepal’s Himalayas, I announce to my American study abroad students that they have the afternoon off. They grab their laptops and, like a herd of goats from the Kathmandu streets, trot to the local tourist ghetto, where wireless Internet cafés abound. They write blogs, post photos, and watch videos. They get on Facebook and read about all the gossip back home.
When they return from their lengthy excursion, they relay funny stories about their campus dorms. They tell me they tagged me in some embarrassing photos and describe the latest YouTube phenomena. We are in stitches, tears streaming from the laughter, and I almost feel like I am 20 again.
But part of me wonders if I am failing them as a teacher.
There was a time when studying in the developing world meant making an agreement with your friends and loved ones to be out of touch for several months. For this brief period in your life, you would abandon everything you knew about the world and everyone you knew in it. Somewhere in that departure, you would live outside of yourself in a way that might terrify and enliven you at the same wild time. When I first lived in Kathmandu, the city had only a handful of hole-in-the-wall Internet stations and the dial-up connection was usually broken, so I battled homesickness with adventure: winding through villages on the backs of motorcycles, warming myself with local brews, snacking on yak meat at 18,000 feet.
Today, there are “cybers” on every street corner of Kathmandu, and my students deal with homesickness by reading emails and Facebook updates.
As the semester wears on, our students begin spending so much time online that our staff discusses instituting a policy. We suggest disconnecting the router at our program house and limiting the number of trips they can make to the Internet cafés. Perhaps we could have “web-free” days where we cram the schedules so full of activities that the students won’t have time for anything else. Or maybe we could outright ban the Internet for the entire semester. Part of me thinks we should. But another part of me feels like a member of an overly oppressive government, trying to outlaw activities that simply can’t be stopped.
Do teachers and program administrators have the right to limit the amount of time students spend on the Internet? Knowing what their students are missing by spending so much time online, do they have an obligation to do so?
A few weeks into the semester, one of my students stops coming to class. Phoebe*, a budding scholar, locks herself in her room, emerging only for meals. When I ask what is going on, she offers vague excuses about diarrhea. I notice that she eats heartily and that she magically improves when the weekend arrives. I call her into my office, annoyed. Through tears, she reveals that she has been battling depression for the last five years, that the daily hardship of Nepal is breaking her, and that she is barely holding on. I think about how scared her parents must feel, letting their troubled daughter go abroad.
“What are you doing to stay connected to others, to be integrated into a human network?” I ask.
“I talk to my parents and my friends every day on Skype. It’s my lifeline.”
“Good,” I say. I wonder if it would be better to urge her to turn off the computer, but I’m too afraid of what might happen if she does.
A few days later, another student, John*, stumbles into the dining hall a few minutes late. Beaming, he explains that he spent the afternoon figuring out the local microbus system. At one bus stop, he learned that the man next to him ran a medical organization desperately in need of interns. By the end of the afternoon, John had an internship, a visit to an office, and a Nepali friend.
John is my only student who has made a conscious effort to avoid the Internet. He doesn’t make a big show of it; he simply spends his time in other ways. By the end of the year, his Nepali language skills are outstanding and he is conducting research in one of the most remote districts of the country, a region still untouched by computers. He is clearly thrilled by the adventure of it all.
And so I find myself caught between two extremes: the urge to make everyone write an email home every single day, and the urge to tear every last router out of Kathmandu.
What I have concluded is this: The goal of a teacher should not be to tell students how to spend their time, but to encourage them to find that sliver of the spectrum where they belong, a place that accentuates who they are and brings them closer to who they can be.
But we should also remind them of the reasons they chose to study abroad in a country like Nepal. They wanted to experience the unknown; to lose and find themselves; to discover new, life-changing adventures. Adventure won’t hit when you least expect it; rather, it’s an orientation, a decision, a way of life.
So let your inboxes fill to the brim and go have the adventures you seek. The messages will still be there when you get back, but your time abroad will not.
*Names have been changed.
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