Growing and Adjusting Abroad

Research explores impact of short-term study abroad, and factors that put foreign students at risk of cultural adjustment problems.
June 1, 2009

LOS ANGELES – Research presented at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference last week shows that even short-term study abroad seems to lead to improvements in students’ sense of “global citizenship” and their attitudes, knowledge and skills about cross-cultural issues.

The annual conference, which concluded Friday, brought together more than 7,000 professionals working in international exchange, outgoing and incoming. On that latter note, another study presented last week provides insight into the cultural adjustment of international students at small residential colleges -- and identifies some characteristics of students most likely to face difficulties in adjusting, socially and psychologically, to their new (small college) settings.

Short-Term Study Abroad Effects

More than half of American students abroad attend short-term programs, of two to eight weeks' duration, according to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education. Yet, said Lisa Chieffo, associate director for the University of Delaware’s Center for International Studies, “There’s still a dearth of data" about its educational value.

Chieffo thought that Delaware -- where about 40 percent of undergraduates study abroad, and most of them on short-term programs -- would be a good laboratory in which to test her research question. “What impacts (if any) does a month-long study abroad program have on students?”

But what sorts of impacts to assess? About 80 programs are offered per year at Delaware, representing about 75 percent of the academic departments. Given the diversity in location and subject matter, Chieffo wanted to focus on generalities, not subject matter specifics. “What’s the commonality that we can assess with them?”

She designed an instrument with 31 Likert scale items, and two short answer questions, and inserted the instrument into the required pre-departure orientation quizzes and the required post-program evaluation. The questions asked about general cross-cultural attitudes, knowledge and skills – they asked students to agree or disagree with statements like “Being in an environment where I don’t understand the local language makes me nervous,” “I can discuss with confidence at least two historic events that are important to the population of my host site,” and “I am able to ascertain whether a member of the host culture is annoyed with me.” More than 1,200 students who studied abroad this January completed the instrument before and after their travels (for a 98 percent response rate). On 28 of the 31 Likert scale items, Chieffo found significant differences from pre-test to post.

“Something is going on in these short-term programs,” Chieffo said. She quickly added: “But it is only a month; we are talking about generalities.”

David Shallenberger, a professor of international education at the School for International Training’s Graduate Institute, also shared his longitudinal, narrative research about short-term study involving non-traditional adult learners. “At least in the reflection of the participants 5, 10, 15 years down the road, profound growth can happen,” he said.

E-mails were sent to study abroad alumni of DePaul University's School for New Learning, and 80 of the e-mails didn't bounce (though that doesn't necessarily mean they got to the intended recipient). Of the 80, 31 alumni returned surveys and 10 were interviewed. The impacts they described typically fell into one of five categories – change of perspective or world view, change in educational or professional goals, learning about another culture, personal growth -- especially in self-confidence -- and insight into oneself.

Shallenberger shared a series of quotes, including one from a student who spent two weeks in Geneva: “The person that was there and the person who came back... I felt I had grown up, ten years of learning in that one trip.” Another respondent said, "It created a desire for me to pursue public service and a graduate degree. I worked with refugees for about two years."

"These were two-week trips in many cases," Shallenberger said, almost as if in amazement.

Yet, he added, “Lest I be accused of being a zealot about all this stuff, and I am… I do have to admit that not everyone grew on these types of trips.” Some individuals reflected upon personal conflicts or an unwillingness to personally invest in the study abroad program.

Elizabeth M. Stallman also summarized one surprising finding on short-term study abroad from another longitudinal study, SAGE – Beyond Immediate Impact: Study Abroad for Global Engagement, involving 6,378 alumni from 22 institutions nationwide. Although conventional wisdom holds that the longer a student can spend abroad the better, researchers found, Stallman said, that duration alone was not a factor in impacting individuals' global engagement.

The challenge, then, is to consider all the other possible programmatic factors. “We want to look at, as best as we can, the other elements of the study abroad experience, including destination, type, whether it’s direct enrollment or island style, and everything in between,” said Stallman, a graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

“It’s an exciting process, but it is hairy.”

International Student Adjustment

Most of the research on international student adjustment is done at big colleges in big cities, said Virginia Wickline, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the College of Wooster. But are there issues unique to international students at small, residential colleges?

In short, “It’s a hodge-podge,” Wickline said of the answer she found to that question. International students at small colleges did report less acculturative stress and less depression than students at big universities, but their sleep was worse and there were no differences in terms of anxiety or social problems.

Wickline was comparing results from an earlier study involving international students at a large, urban institution in Georgia with those from her more recent study on students at small, residential colleges. In terms of the latter study, Wickline surveyed international students at eight colleges -- Beloit, Grinnell, Kenyon and Whitman Colleges, Denison and Lawrence Universities, the College of Wooster and the University of Richmond. A total of 113 students, out of a possible 916, filled out the survey (for a response rate of 12 percent), although only 79 completed the survey in its entirety. Wickline cautioned that her response rate was small, but large enough to start formulating questions about other potential areas of research. And, taken together from her findings, she identified “a pattern of a person most at risk for cultural adjustment difficulties” (social and psychological). Students most at risk tend to be freshmen, introverted, non-Western (or non-white), speak English as a second language, have limited prior travel experience, be of lower socioeconomic status (and therefore have more money concerns) and spend a lot of time alone each day.

“Asking students about how they’re sleeping can be one way to open the dialogue about how they’re doing,” Wickline said. “It might be a way to open the dialogue in a less threatening manner.”


Back to Top