How More Study Abroad Programmes Could Benefit Society
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How More Study Abroad Programmes Could Benefit Society

How More Study Abroad Programmes Could Benefit Society

Calvert Jones, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland, carried out a study using a sample of American “Study Abroad” students to uncover whether greater cross-border contact can be a powerful force for good.

We are already aware of the positive impact study abroad programmes can have on a student’s personal development, since numerous studies and surveys have already proven so.

For example, the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) surveyed alumni from all IES study abroad programmes from 1950 through to 1999; the data from more than 3,400 respondents showed that, despite where the participants studied or how long their programme lasted, studying abroad is a defining occasion that continues to impact the individual’s life long after the experience has ended.

When asked about personal growth, 97 percent of the survey’s respondents answered that studying abroad served as a stimulant for increased maturity; 96 percent reported significant increase in self-confidence; 89 percent claimed it enabled them to tolerate ambiguity while 95 percent proclaimed that it had a lasting impact on their perception of the world.

Caroline Valtos, a survey participant who engaged in a semester of study at the University of Adelaide in 1992 said: “Overall, I learned a lot more about myself in that one semester than I did in the three and a half years in my home school because of the unique space in which I learned, experienced, and spent exploring another culture.

Findings also demonstrated that studying abroad results in long-lasting friendships between international students who originate from the same country, and also has a positive effect on relationships that have already been formed. More than 50 percent of the American participants reported they were still in contact with U.S friends they met whilst studying abroad, and 73 percent said their experience continues to influence their every-day decisions.

Julia Zimmerman, lead author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology commented that: “Those who spent some time abroad profit in their personality development, for instance in terms of growing openness and emotional stability.”

On top of this, we are aware that the knowledge, skills and cultural experience gained from studying abroad can significantly boost a student’s level of employability, but Jones’s recent study uncovered how studying abroad could have widespread positive impact on many aspects of modern society.

Jones carried out a natural experiment across a sample of more than 500 study abroad students from 11 colleges across New England, the Midwest and the South. He surveyed their feelings of international community, perceptions of foreign threat, levels of nationalism and patriotism, as well as demographics and study abroad programme characteristics.

The participants were split into two groups; the treatment group, who were just returning home from their study abroad experience, and the control group, who were just about to embark on theirs, the reason being so that the results from both groups could be compared against each other.

First, Jones tested the hypothesis that cross-border contact promotes a shared sense of international community, or what political scientist Karl Deutsch called a “we-feeling” across cultural boundaries.  Some theorists have given this a more common definition in terms of warmth, trust and shared understanding and values. Shockingly, it turned out that none of the indicators for feelings of international community were higher for students returning than for those who were yet to travel.

Jones even discovered that the participants who were returning home felt they had considerably fewer common values, and were much more likely to say their understanding of key concepts differed to those of people from their home country.

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Via WashingtonPost.

Secondly, Jones moved on to the students’ perceptions of threat. He asked each student to rate how vulnerable they would feel if their home country, in this case the United States, was overtaken by their host country in things like military growth or economic expansion. The results showed that the students who had just returned home rated their host country as significantly less threatening than the students about to leave.

Despite the fact that increased cross-border contact did not seem to enhance feelings of community, it would seem that studying abroad can soften our perception of threat, which is most likely, Jones says, due to the fact that cross-border contact increases our expectation of peaceful change and co-operation, regardless of any uncertainty or shifts in the distribution of power. Jones writes that “Cross-border contact may still be a strong force for peace, even if community is not the underlying mechanism.”

The final factor Jones wanted to test was the “clash of civilizations”. Many believe that cross-border contact promotes strong feelings of nationalism, rather than a global sense of community.

So it turned out, the treatment group returned home with strong feelings of pride towards many aspects of American culture, including its literature, arts, armed forces, sporting accomplishments and its political influence. They claimed they were proud to be an American and now had a stronger sense of patriotism.

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Via WashingtonPost.

Interestingly though, Jones points out that although the treatment group returned with more national pride, they did not demonstrate any sense of superiority when it came to their home country; there was actually no difference in attitude between the two groups. Therefore, though their study abroad experience resulted in a stronger sense of patriotism, it was not promoted in a destructive or intolerant manner.

Clearly this heightened sense of pride is not cause for concern; merely a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and after spending a prolonged period of time away, the students began to fully appreciate the home they had left behind.

As a universal society, we have come to believe that people who are intensely patriotic often lack the diverse mind-set of a tolerant “global citizen”. However, Jones’s study has shown that students returning from studying abroad are both more nationalistic, but are also less prone to viewing other nations as a threat.

Jones writes that: “Rather than fostering a sense of shared international community and warm realizations of “we are the same,” cross-border contact may instead encourage a form of “enlightened nationalism”- a sharper sense of national difference, and pride in that difference, tempered by tolerance and the realization that such differences need not be threatening.

“In a globalizing world where cross-border contact continues to grow, it is perhaps enlightened nationalism rather than utopian notions of international community that should be encouraged.”

Whatever your opinion of Jones’s findings, it is clear, yet again, that any negative factors with regards to studying abroad are far outweighed by the positive. Perhaps further endorsement for study abroad programmes, paired with rigorous encouragement to get more students to participate in these programmes, could lessen cultural tensions that threatening countries across the world.

Jason Thornberg, a former international student who studied a term in Vienna back in 1994, said: “It has been nearly ten years since I was a student in Vienna, but not a single day goes by where its impact is not felt in my life.

“My time there fundamentally changed how I view the world and has given me the ability to view the world, and its issues, from several perspectives.”

inage via Shutterstock.

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