Does study abroad lead to intercultural learning?

For U.S. students, study abroad has never been more popular—according to the Open Doors data from the U.S. State Department, the number of students studying abroad has more than doubled since the turn of the 21st century, and about 10% of U.S. students will study abroad during their undergraduate career.  As a study abroad researcher, this is both exciting (because more students are getting this opportunity) and disheartening (because there seems to be little attention paid to what happens after students cross that national border and gain the status of a study abroad student).  

If intercultural learning is a goal of study abroad, both intercultural contact and reflection upon that contact are necessary components of the experience.  Although there are many (sometimes conflicting) views of the purpose of study abroad, one assumption in institutions of higher education in particular is that study abroad results in improved intercultural learning, due to the intercultural contact experiences students will have abroad.  Unfortunately, research on study abroad shows that neither intercultural contact nor intercultural learning is a guaranteed result of being placed in geographic proximity to other cultures.  Study abroad students may socialize primarily with co-nationals, engaging with locals only in service encounters.  Even when they are able to join local social networks, intercultural contact alone does not lead to intercultural learning—there must be reflection upon that contact for learning to occur.  

Sustained contact requires doing things together over time.  To make this happen, there generally has to be a shared interest, such as participation in a class, club, sport, job, organization, etc, or a value exchange, such as paying for accommodation, lessons, or engaging in a language exchange.  Yet finding these opportunities, particularly if students are studying abroad for a short period of time with little program support outside of the classroom, is not always easy.  

Then, there is reflection, which is a skill unto itself.  To learn from a contact experience, students must be able to think about that experience, and have the skill to interpret its events from multiple perspectives, and possibly in multiple languages.  This requires mental space that is not always available in programs packed full of classroom and extracurricular activities.  Study abroad is also a highly emotional experience, and experiencing strong emotions can also make reflection more difficult.  

Although I have heard people say that it is on the study abroad students themselves to find opportunities for contact and reflection, and that is what the “good” students do, I strongly believe that programmatic interventions are necessary if we want to make this a reality for the majority of students.  After all, 63% of U.S. students study abroad for 8 weeks or less, a time frame that allows a greater diversity of students to go abroad, but limits their opportunities to develop local connections and reflect upon these experiences.  

Of course, as is usually the case when applying research, there can be conflicts between what the research says is ideal, and the constraints of a particular context, such as student finances or the timing of an academic semester.  Although this used to frustrate me, I now believe it is an opportunity to look for creative solutions that maximize research ideals within these real world constraints.  

For example, in 2016 I developed a two-week faculty led study abroad program in Jordan, where the time frame would seem to severely limit the amount of intercultural contact students could engage in.   To extend this contact, I had the students engage in an 8-week telecollaboration with Jordanian language partners prior to the experience abroad and made activities with these partners the focus of each day abroad.  The telecollaboration built up a sense of anticipation for the trip, and allowed the students have already developed relationships with their partners prior to meeting them in person.  The activities, such as going to a movie, or cooking a meal, or visiting a historic site, allowed them to spend time together.  To encourage students to reflect upon their experiences for their partners, they were required to complete an ethnographic project for study abroad, which required them to think back upon these experiences, and find out possible interpretations of them from their partners.  Although a longer time period abroad would certainly have allowed for more learning, it would also have required a time and financial investment some of my students could not afford.   

So, does study abroad lead to intercultural learning? Sometimes. Let’s see if we can make it all the time!