Virtual Commuters? The American Transnational Academic Exchangee

Virtual Commuters? The American Transnational Academic Exchangee

Wolfgang Niehues

Especially since the end of World War II, international student exchange has been regarded as an efficient way for not only promoting the personal independence of the exchangee, but especially for encouraging the dialog between individuals of nation-state societies. In an academic exchange program, persons having the potential to become future leadership figures temporarily detach their ties with their home country while getting immersed in the culture(s) of the host country. By experiencing these sometimes radically different ways of life abroad, they have the opportunity to broaden their horizon, to become more open-minded and tolerant towards others, and to take this knowledge back to their home country. In 1989, J. William Fulbright described the ethos behind international student exchange programs as having

"[] the belief that international relations can be improved, and the danger of war significantly reduced, by producing generations of leaders, especially in the big countries, who through the experience of educational exchange, will have acquired some feeling and understanding of other peoples' cultures why they operate as they do, why they think as they do, why they react as they do and of the differences among these cultures." (Fulbright 1989, 193f.)

Preambles of most of today's exchange program agreements reiterate this kind of ethos. But especially in the age of globalization and the Internet, the circumstances under which international student exchange takes place have been subject to groundbreaking developments. Constant social, political, and technological change make up some of the most significant challenges international student exchange has to face. Endeavors like also the Bologna process in Europe with its emphasis on global mobility tend to run the risk of making study abroad a mere bonus on the CV without stressing its value for a cultural dialog: being abroad may yield a few 'extra points' with the human resources departments of future employers, but the fundamentally different cultural quality of a study abroad period in the times of the Internet and global mobility (compared to, say, the 1970s) is not recognized thoroughly enough. How far does the exposure to the foreign culture still go nowadays and what effect does the Internet have? This paper about my PhD-project takes a look at how the Internet can influence American exchange students experiencing the foreign and their own culture during a stay abroad in Germany and how this and other phenomena associated with globalization may affect the goals Fulbright stated. For this project, I interviewed more than 20 American exchange students who spent one or more semesters at the Universität Dortmund over the past two years.

Geographical and social containers

Since merely having a cultural studies perspective cannot encompass the complexity of this question, I also included sociological components in order to gain a more comprehensive approach. Basically spoken, international student exchange can be seen as a product of the assumption that each social space is congruous with a corresponding geographical space, its geographical 'container.'1 We have one unit called United States of America, a geographical entity defined mainly by the Pacific in the west, the Atlantic in the east, and the borders to Canada and Mexico in the north and the south, respectively. This area in between containing geographical features like the Appalachians, the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Rocky Mountains, and the San Andreas Fault is regarded as congruent with the social space "United States of America," popularly defined by what is perceived as American culture, the "American way of life." Student exchange is normally taking place between two of these containers, for example moving from the aforementioned 'container' to the one labeled "Germany."

Historically, as sociologist Ludger Pries points out, this mutual embeddedness of major social and geographical spaces was established and institutionalized only over the past two or three hundred years (cf. Pries 1999; 2001). Territories of kings and princes - and later nation states - became the ultimate independent geographic unit for legitimate public social spaces. However, their frontiers2 are hardly natural but arbitrary, human-made demarcation lines as well as results of and conditions for everyday life and politics.

Since World War II, this concept of territories as autonomous containers of homogeneous social spaces proved to be increasingly inaccurate: supra-national organizations (United Nations, GATT/WTO, WHO) started regulating international relations, and especially in the 1990s, many former nation states started breaking apart, often amid armed conflicts, with the newly founded nations often immediately seeking entry into supranational organizations like the United Nations, NATO, or the EU. The congruence between the social and geographical dimensions turned out to be an arbitrary construct. This is also an aspect international academic exchange has to keep in mind.

It became apparent that this "demise of the nation state" (cf. Hoffa 2002) had several reasons. For one, the nation state was weakened in its significance 'from below'...

  by regional powers and local activists who mainly due to the better access to information and communication gained momentum in the past decades. (cf. also Bimber 2003)

It was weakened also 'from above'

  • by global networks like the ones aforementioned.
  • by economic globalization, i.e. the growing power of big companies that have become global players with growing influence on political decisions.
  • by ecological globalization, which entails the realization that nature does not respect any human-made political borders, as became obvious by e.g. the worldwide fallout of Chernobyl in 1986, or the South Asia tsunami in 2004; the ecological globalization also includes efforts like the Kyoto protocol.
  • by cultural globalization making the cultural landscapes and popular culture more homogeneous, e.g. Hollywood movies, MTV, etc.

From the American studies point of view, the factors 'from above' are of particular interest for my project, since the United States have a quite defining role there, especially regarding cultural globalization. Hence, the phenomenon widely called 'globalization' often gets the subtitle 'Americanization' in mainstream discourse. That, in turn, makes its effects on international student exchange, in particular on American students abroad, an extremely interesting topic for American studies.

Having said that, it has to be examined as to how far the globalization discourse fits the current situation and whether it is not overly vague. One definition of globalization by Anthony Giddens states that it is characterized by the constant spatial expansion of social spaces and relations (cf. Giddens 1990). The forms of social communities changed from primitive nomadic tribes in the stone age to medieval market towns, later to nation states, which in turn agglomerated into macro-regions like e.g. the European Union. Thus, the next logical step would be having the whole world as one social space. The geographic (spatial) factor would become increasingly insignificant for social relations. For Roland Robertson, as a second example, globalization is signified by the shrinking of geographical space: former restraints dissolve due to mobility and communication. (cf. Robertson 1992) Also here, the spatial factors become insignificant.

However, as Pries argues, both approaches do not go far enough but simplify instead. The physical (geographical) space cannot simply dissolve and vanish, even in cyberspace, because local and regional factors still possess significance and coexist with global ones.3 A social 'container' still (at least partly) exists geographically, whereas the two globalization definitions by Giddens and Robertson can be read as postulating its de-territorialization. (cf. Pries 2001)

The alternative Pries provides is the theory of transnational social spaces. According to his theory, national identity still survives in spite of the increasing global migration and expanding social spaces while geographical space still retains its significance. Taking Pries' example of Mexican transmigrants in the U.S., their situation is as follows: they repeatedly move back and forth between the two countries, working in the American 'container', but still being rooted in and in contact with the Mexican national and social 'container.' However, they also become part of the American 'container' in more than one way. Yet even while living the United States, they retain stable interdependent sets of social habits, values, customs, and practices. Thus, they build a pluri-locally spanned transnational space. Just as Westwood and Phizacklea state: "the meaning of 'home' becomes stretched over time and space" (Westwood and Phizacklea 2000, 2) An illustration shows the constellation:

Fig. 1: Several social spaces in one physical space; one social space stretching over several physical spaces4

As Fig. 1 shows, it is possible to have one social space stretched across several geographical units (pluri-local), but also that several "stacked" social spaces can co-exist (but not necessarily interact) within one geographical unit. (cf. Pries 2001)

Further examples for pluri-local social spaces are the Catholic Church, soccer team fans, or even terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. These pluri-local social spaces are no longer within (direct) reach of nation-states (cf. Held et al. 1999) and using the advantages of improved communication and transportation technology, they proved to be a growing phenomenon over the past decades. Prime examples for locations of "stacked" social spaces are global cities, where for example the social space of the Catholic Church co-exists with the social space of a soccer fan club. Hence pluri-local social spaces can at the same time be represented in "stacked" social spaces environments. They do not exclude each other.

In the same sense, transnationalism theories should not be regarded as replacement for but as interdependent with globalization discourse (cf. Pries 2002). Both are of high importance for the future of academic exchange, since the goal of international education, namely the understanding of other cultures, is still a vital point and must not be replaced by the mere ability to maneuver successfully (or at least with no major incidents) and enhance one's own employability in the global arena.

The Internet: factors for academic exchange

Global mobility is one factor that has to be taken into account when re-evaluating international education. Another one is the advanced communication technologies, especially the Internet. Looking back it is obvious that up to the 1990s, studying abroad as an exchange student (e.g. as an American in Europer) meant to a larger degree to be cutting the umbilical cord to home: letters took a long time to until they reached the United States and phone calls were rather expensive. Due to this, the dialog with home was most of the time either incorporating massive time lags or kept short. With the introduction of Internet to a broader public, a paradigm shift took place: e-mail messages were no longer the domain of computer specialists but became mainstream and crossed - even enriched with multimedia content - the Atlantic within seconds to all the recipients specified in it. Soon also synchronous communication became possible and affordable through Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the more popular instant messengers (e.g. ICQ, MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, etc.), Internet telephony, and videoconferencing. Furthermore, websites started to provide an abundance of information, e.g. reference, international and local news, entertainment, and personal homepages. All this brought home a little bit closer to the exchangee despite the geographical distance. In turn, today having Internet access abroad is almost as expected (and subjectively needed) by the prospective exchangees as having electricity, heating, and water.

Regarding the development of the Internet, it is quite important to note that the division between the realms of information (predominantly the World Wide Web) and communication (e-mail, instant messenger) has been recently broken down by hybrid online phenomena that entered the mainstream: online photo albums, weblogs (blogs), and community-building websites such as and Up to the last years of the 20th century, online photo albums were static web pages, mostly coded manually or set up page by page in web page editors, using scanned film-based photos, allowing only a passive reception (except for perhaps an e-mail link to the author). The rise of digital cameras, however, together with automated server-side photo-gallery software made uploading photos and captioning them a much easier and faster process. Most of the time visitors of these online albums also have the opportunity to publicly or privately leave comments about any of the pictures - and the author can respond to them, also either publicly or privately.6

To no surprise, a lot of exchange students use these websites in order to share photographic memories of their time abroad with people back home, fellow students they met during their time abroad, or anybody else who might stumble upon it while surfing the Web. The comments left by the visitors of their albums in the respective guestbooks (and the reactions to them) often prove to trigger virtual cross-cultural dialogs and deeper reflections about the cultural experiences involved. This can be also considered an innovative opportunity for managing culture shock productively in a dialog.

The time span from the exchange student encountering something he or she wants to share up to the moment a report and photo of it is accessible to people back home and they respond to it decreased from weeks (when still having the prints developed at a lab and sending them in limited numbers by postal mail) to minutes (when just plugging in the digital camera into the laptop and transferring the photos directly onto the Internet for unlimited downloading).

The Internet: creating the virtual commuter

By extending Pries' container-theory, one could also define the Internet as a (cyber-)space for maintaining pluri-local social relations. Although the American exchange students do not physically transmigrate between their home and the host culture like the Mexican transmigrants in Pries' example, but they virtually maintain their ties over the Internet. So every American exchange student in Germany nowadays can be a virtual commuter, on a daily basis. This virtual sequential migration, the constant transnational contact with both the home culture as well as the host culture (and also other cultures) is of course ambivalent regarding the goals of international academic exchange.

On the one hand, it can lead to a beneficial effect, taking the current Iraq crisis as an example: students are able to get manifold information and opinions from home via the Internet (both by communicating and by browsing news media websites and watching video streams online), but can also discuss the issues with Germans right after that and get many other unique impulses from the various "stacked" transnational spaces present in Germany. This can lead to a much more comprehensive perspective on the whole conflict and trigger a higher cross-cultural understanding of the various motives and interests in the matter.

On the other hand, however, the convenience of easily staying in touch with home can lead to a kind of virtual commuter that hardly leaves the American virtual social space - while physically being in the host culture, of course. Sometimes this even leads to self-fulfilling prophecies as the following worst-case example shows: an American exchange student in Germany went to his classes, immediately returned to his dorm after they finished, went online and stayed there for the rest of the day, sometimes even complaining that he never met any Germans or experienced any exciting in the host culture - which of course is inevitable in any country when staying in the seclusion of one's dorm room all day. He finally returned home earlier than scheduled, having had a rather frustrating abroad experience. Scenarios like this one with its quality of a self-inflicted diasporization have become increasingly familiar to exchange coordinators ever since the Internet became mainstream. This stands for the potential downside of the new communication technologies that works against the goals of international academic exchange. It is, however, inaccurate to indiscriminately praise or condemn the Internet and its role in this context. Instead, the Internet habits of exchange students and their effects have to be examined to find measures that can be taken to use the Internet in the most beneficial way for international academic exchange programs. This is what my project aims at.


International academic exchange has undergone a paradigm shift due to political, social, and technological changes. They have to be taken into account and the exchange programs have to be adjusted to the new circumstances in order to ensure that its purpose as defined by Fulbright will still be achieved.

For Americans during their study abroad stay in Germany, it has to be examined whether it is really still a frontier experience to study in a foreign country full of people with English as the first foreign language, with McDonald's, Starbucks, and Walmart in many major cities, American sitcoms on TV - and with the Internet as the virtual umbilical cord connecting them to their home culture. Virtual commuters who just go to "work" in the foreign culture every weekday morning and spend most of their free time physically or virtually with either peers from their own culture (and thus building a diaspora or "third culture"7) have to be brought back into the intercultural dialog so they don't seek refuge in a unicultural monologue which undermines the goals of international academic exchange.

1 The term 'container' goes back to Einstein's critique of mechanistic concepts of space (1960).

2 The concept of the 'frontier' is of course especially interesting for the American studies perspective of my project. It entails the presumption that outside of one's own container, there is the unknown, the risk, the 'wilderness', the room for progress along the lines of the frontier narrative, an essential factor of American identity (cf. Turner 1962). American students going to study abroad are pioneers again, if not for their country then at least for themselves thus studying abroad can be called "narrative-based." (Grünzweig 2002, 107)

3 Even an World Wide Web server is not entirely anchored in virtual space, but still dependent on physical space - if there is an power outage at the very place it is situated at and there is no backup system, it will cease to function due to these physical circumstances. Thus, physical space can nevertheless play a significant role in cyberspace.

4 Illustration taken from the presentation Pries, Ludger Transnationalisierung als Forschungsprogramm? Konzepte, Methoden und Beispiele. October 2003. Bochum. 20. Oct 2005 <>

5 At the beginning of my empirical study in early 2004, only a few of the American students interviewed used or even knew weblogs. When I interviewed the last group at the end of 2005, they were widely known and used by most of them.

6 An example for this kind of online photo album website is

7 As coined by James L. Citron (cf. Citron 2002)

Works Cited

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