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Technology a game-changer for student travelers

Considering how many centuries most of them have been around, European cities haven’t changed much in the past 20 years. The streets are still narrow and crowded. Americans are treated well, as long as they take a stab at the native language. The candy bars still have odd names, like Tronky and Plopp.

What has changed is how we navigate those foreign environments. Students going on W’International these days have a distinct advantage not afforded to students of the past.

“As college students then, we were not able to find things on our phones to go do,” says Stacey Fields Harris ’00, whose W’International experience in 1999 was in Italy. “You depended on the map or what the concierge at the hotel told you.”

Harris got a second bite at the apple last year. Executive director of University events, Harris accompanied a group to Spain in May of 2018 as a staff adviser.

She wouldn’t characterize either experience as inferior – just different. And the primary difference was technological. These days, almost all students have smartphones, and Wi-Fi is amply available in most W’International destinations.

Stacey and Brandon Harris in Italy and Spain

That makes navigating and planning a snap. After the planned group activity or outing for the day, students are often on their own, and they often split up into smaller groups to find food and entertainment. They use the smartphone app Yelp for dinner recommendations, take Uber to get there and text their friends pictures of their meal or the club they just got into.

“Technology made them very independent,” Harris says of the students who went to Spain with her. “I did try to give them a speech at the beginning: ‘You know, we are in a foreign country. Your cell-phone service may or may not work. Take a hotel map as a backup.’ Fortunately, Barcelona was modern enough that pretty much everywhere had Wi-Fi.”

Twenty years ago, things were much different. Cell phones were becoming ubiquitous, but they were for calling and texting, not hailing a ride, figuring out where to eat or taking pictures. “I remember running out of film in Italy and having to find a place that sold Kodak film and it being uber-expensive,” she says. “Now, if you’ve got a phone, you’ve got a camera. You really don’t run out of space. And with WhatsApp, any pictures anybody took automatically updated to your own camera roll.”

Cultural differences

When Harris went to Italy for W’International in 1999, most of the group stuck together, in order to find their way around. They all knew each other pretty well from class, but being in a foreign country solidified the group’s bond.

The same goes for Harris and her then boyfriend (now husband), Brandon Harris '00, who was part of that group. “I think you learn what you can and can’t tolerate with someone – you know, how you travel,” she says. “A night or two we would go out to dinner by ourselves. It was fun to be in a different country with your boyfriend. It was definitely an experience. Luckily it worked out and we got married.”

Both Harrises went on the trip to Spain, too, and this time they knew better how to travel together. But they still learned and grew from their experiences. Along with several students, they got tickets to see the soccer team F.C. Barcelona play in its famed 99,000-seat mid-'50s stadium Camp Nou. Stacey Harris called it “an unparalleled sports experience,” especially considering that she got to see one of the best players ever, Lionel Messi.

“There’s absolutely nothing like it,” she says. “They don’t sell alcohol. They allowed people to bring in their own food. At halftime people were breaking out salami sandwiches.

“Messi didn’t play that long, but while he was in, it was amazing. The energy level went up. You could tell how much better he was than anybody else just in the little bit he played.”

She developed a new appreciation for soccer while in Spain, just as she learned to love Italian pizza and espresso in Italy. But the cultural differences, she says, are on full display no matter where you go on W’International. They’re perhaps the biggest reason to take part in the program – whether it’s experiencing a country’s national sport or learning that pepperoni pizza and lasagna aren’t really Italian.

Although technology has made the world smaller in one sense, the earth is still a large planet full of a wide variety of people and cultures. And we’re just a small part of that.

“Just learning that you are a part of a great big planet and the world does not revolve around you,” Harris says. “It does not revolve around North Carolina or Wingate or even America for that matter. It’s just bigger than you. And it can be in big, sweeping political things or something as simple as ordering a cup of coffee. It’s bigger than you.”