Hello Bridge Year China students! This post is about smartphones and electronic devices and how we want to use them during our time together. For many of us, our devices are practically an extension of ourselves…we sleep with them next to us, they wake us up in the morning, help us document our lives, entertain us, present us with reminders, help us connect with others, tell us how many steps(!) we’ve taken today, and help us stay connected with family and friends—among many other wonderful things.
That said, they also have the power to disconnect us from what is happening around us, can lead to addictive behavior, and many studies have shown that being constantly connected to the digital world can have a negative effect on our mental health and ability to communicate meaningfully with others in the real world. Growing up in the digital age, you’ve probably heard much of this before and we don’t want to lecture you with tired lines about how “technology is corrupting our youth.” In fact, these days we often see students wanting to unplug from social media and the pressures of constant online connection. In writing this post, our goal is simply to get you thinking about how and how much you want to use electronic devices during our upcoming year together.
Where There Be Dragons, as an organization, has a blanket policy that strongly requests all students leave smartphones and other devices at home during summer and semester courses. In short, we’ve found that phones detract from the student experience and can create risk management issues for the group. When students reflect back on their courses, they often note that taking a break from technology was one of the most liberating aspects of their time abroad.
“Ah…but…this is different! I’m away for a whole year and I’ll need my phone!” you say. Indeed, you’ll probably want to have a phone in some situations—to communicate with host families and NGOs in Kunming, to navigate urban public transportation—but do you need it all the time?
You have all chosen, thoughtfully and intentionally, to spend a year abroad in China. We hope you can bring the same thoughtfulness and intention to considering these questions: How can electronic devices help us capture and fully embrace the meaningful moments during our time together? How can we use technology wisely and mindfully? Please think about these questions individually and we will discuss them further as a group during orientation.
For now, we want to introduce our intentions around phone/electronics usage for the formative first month of our program. We will depart Kunming for our travels on August 31 and return to Kunming to begin integrating into city life on October 2. During this time, we will be traveling, trekking, and doing homestays in rural parts of Yunnan province. Due to the realities of electronic communication during remote rural travel, as well as our hope that you will be fully present during our first few weeks together, we want to challenge you to take a break from wifi and data for this period of time. It’s amazing how dependent we’ve all become on technology and our initial time in China might provide one of very few opportunities for you to unplug from the pressures of constant social media/electronic connection. It is a truly liberating feeling if you haven’t tried it, or don’t remember the last time you didn’t have a phone at arm’s reach. This will be a “challenge by choice” and we will define the goals and boundaries of this collective unplugging together as a group during orientation.
Worry not—you won’t be totally disconnected from the world, and your loved ones will still be able to receive updates! During our first month of travel, both instructors and students will be posting regularly on the Yak board, which serves as a group blog, photo album, and collective archive of the Bridge Year experience. Your families and friends can check the Yak board every few days for updates from the field. Additionally, staff on the ground (Jesse, Ling, and Madeleine) will have phones that can call and email, and will be in frequent contact with the Dragons and Bridge Year offices. Should urgent communication needs arise, you will be able to contact home. Your families may contact the Bridge Year office at any time to relay information to you.
It boils down to this: We do not want to enter a rural homestay, pop in our ear buds, and tune out of the experience around us. We’ve seen electronic devices completely tear students away from their present surroundings, increase homesickness, keeping students with one foot in China and one foot back home via their social media newsfeeds. Even our longest and most arduous travel days, precisely when it’s most tempting to put our headphones on, can hold some of the most amazing and unexpected cultural interactions; however, we need to keep our senses open (i.e., not looking at a screen or listening to music) to engage with those beautiful, unplanned moments.
While we will have set intentions around usage of smartphones and electronics, we also understand that these tools can be incredibly helpful and useful and can be used to aid your understanding of your life abroad, when used wisely. We look forward to discussing all of this and more when we are together in Kunming.
We’re so excited to meet you all and begin our journey together!
Madeleine, Ling, and Jesse