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Study Abroad as a Character Development Opportunity

with Jessica Mestre (Opinion)

“Study abroad” means many different things to many different people.  A study abroad experience may last a week, a month, a semester, an academic year, or as long as it takes to complete a full degree.  Students may participate in a program led by faculty or directly enroll in a host university, with or without other students from their home institution or home country, and in various living accommodations.  From my perspective as a former student abroad, intern abroad, and program assistant abroad, the common theme between these iterations is that they all push students outside their bubble.  This departure from their comfort zone can be thought of as an opportunity for character development.

This article uses Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility, published by the Association of American College and Universities (AAC&U), as a framework for exploring the character development possible through study abroad (n.d.).  (Although this piece focuses on United States students studying in other countries, I believe the same case can be made for students from any country who then pursue education in another country.)  AAC&U’s Core Commitments emphasizes five dimensions relevant to “students exploring their ethical responsibilities to self and others…[as] global and local citizens” (n.d., para. 5).  This article identifies different aspects of study abroad that correspond to these dimensions, as they are described in Character Traits Associated with the Five Dimensions of Personal and Social Responsibility (n.d.).

Striving for Excellence

AAC&U describes this dimension as “advocat[ing] personal accountability and responsibility” (Character Traits, p. 2).  For some students, studying abroad may be the first time they are truly separated from the direct influence of family and close friends.  The culture of alcohol consumption, and oftentimes the legal drinking age, is dramatically different from the U.S.  These factors and others force students to assume an increased level of independence and self-discipline while navigating a new environment.  This dimension also includes “being able to adapt, stay positive, and persevere” as part of excellence (p. 2).  Flexibility and resilience are central components to studying abroad, as students must respond to any number of challenges like distinct cultural norms, oftentimes a different language, and issues as mundane as learning to use local public transit.

Cultivating Personal and Academic Integrity

Although this dimension includes academic honesty, I argue that study abroad provides more opportunities to develop personal integrity.  AAC&U incorporates “reflecting on one’s actions and thoughts, both positively and critically” in this dimension (Character Traits, p. 3).  The exposure to new stimuli while studying abroad provides a powerful backdrop for self-reflection and understanding.  By contextualizing their behavior and thinking in a distinct society and environment, students have a greater opportunity to gain new insights.  Furthermore, students abroad are often reminded that they represent their home country and institution, underscoring the impact that any missteps may cause.

Contributing to a Larger Community

This dimension is described by AAC&U as “developing an understanding of where one fits into a broader scheme” (Character Traits, p. 4).  Study abroad is a fantastic opportunity for growth in this dimension because it shifts the context and expands the scope of students’ sense of community.  Self-reflection and social awareness work together to complicate previous notions of students’ place in the world.  Some programs focus on learning about and addressing the challenges faced by developing countries.  These particular programs foster students’ ability to identify needs, set goals, and take action to make improvements for the good of society.

Taking Seriously the Perspectives of Others

AAC&U characterizes this dimension as “engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, for citizenship, and for work” (Character Traits, p. 5).  Detailing the effects of study abroad on intercultural competence falls outside the scope of this article; indeed, an entire dissertation has been published on the subject (Salisbury, 2011).  Still, study abroad is overflowing with opportunities to learn from different points of view and life experience, whether in markets, public transportation, news broadcasts, the classroom, or simply observing one’s surroundings in daily life.  The possibilities are enhanced for students who speak the language of the country and take the initiative to seek insights from locals.  Open-mindedness, empathy, and respect go a long way in maximizing growth in this dimension.

Developing Competence of Ethical and Moral Reasoning

The final dimension is described as “developing one’s own personal and social values and being able to express and act upon those values responsibly” (Character Traits, p. 6).  Although this aspect may be a developmental stretch for some students, this growth could reasonably be fueled by the study abroad process.  Particularly, returning to the U.S., adjusting back to U.S. culture, and articulating the experience to others can be considered as opportunities for values clarification.  Students can compare and contrast what has been consistently important to them across distinct contexts.

Counter-points

Admittedly, conceptualizing study abroad as an experience full of so many possibilities puts a considerable amount of trust in students and their maturity.  Will all students seize these opportunities?  No.  Is it realistic to think that some students may at least challenge their thinking in a few dimensions?  Yes.  Is it possible for mature students with sufficient preparation, support, initiative, and reflection to grow in all of these dimensions?  I believe so.

There is also a significant privilege that comes with studying abroad, especially if students spend their time outside traditional destinations like Western Europe or Australia.  A well-rounded approach to character development should include an examination of this privilege, unpacking of how the sheer cost of international travel relates to locals’ perceptions of students, and how study abroad fits into the global socioeconomic context.  Some students receive significant financial aid to study abroad, so these conversations require nuance and consideration.

Practical Implications

Why does this matter?  Student affairs professionals who speak with potential study abroad participants can encourage them to broaden their thinking about the possibilities for growth.  Program leaders can use the Character Traits document as a framework for integrating character development opportunities into their programs.  Whether through orientation, journal prompts, reflective conversations, developmentally-challenging assignments, or debriefing with students, leaders who intentionally incorporate these dimensions into their programs can design a compelling structure for maximizing growth.  Students themselves can use the dimensions, their detailed descriptions, and examples of traits to incorporate study abroad insights into cover letters, resumes, and interviews.

One simple way to cultivate students’ thinking about potential character development through study abroad includes incorporating the “three central questions worth asking,” as posed by Braskamp in a Commencement address (2007).  By asking themselves “How do I know?  Who am I? and How do I relate to others?” students will grapple with many overlapping aspects of the five dimensions explored above (p. 3).  Students do not necessarily need to approach this self-reflection as seeking a big-picture depiction of themselves, but instead could use the questions as a guideline to document the evolution of their thinking throughout the study abroad experience.

Fundamentally, by pushing students outside of their comfort zone, study abroad encompasses exceedingly more opportunities than students, families, and employers may realize at first glance.  By bringing attention to the different dimensions of character development and situating them in study abroad, I hope that future study abroad participants will use this understanding as a springboard to grow as much as possible through the process.


References

Braskamp, L. (2007). Three ‘central’ questions worth asking. Journal of College and Character, 9(1). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1101

Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility. (n.d.). Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/core_commitments

Character Traits Associated with the Five Dimensions of Personal and Social Responsibility (n.d.). Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/CharacterTraitsofthe5Dimensions.pdf

Salisbury, M.H. (2011). The effect of study abroad on intercultural competence among undergraduate college students. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/1073