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Study Abroad Point: Counterpoint

The Impact of Short-term Study Abroad

Student Reflections Eight Years Later

Abstract

A study was conducted eight years ago on the value of short-term study abroad programs. Extensive research was collected on two cohorts of undergraduate students who participated in a short-term program in the Czech Republic in 2002 and 2003. The focus of the study was to determine the impact the short-term programming had on participants’ overall construction of knowledge. Eight years later, the same students were interviewed to evaluate their reflections on how their college education and construction of knowledge was impacted by their short-term study abroad program.

Introduction

A study was conducted eight years ago on the value of short-term study abroad programs. According to Vande Berg (2003) short-term is defined as typically lasting five to seven weeks, often held in the summer or winter intersession. Extensive research was collected on two cohorts of undergraduate students who participated in a three-and-a half week program in Europe, specifically, the Czech Republic, during the autumn of 2002 and 2003. The focus of this emerging design case study was to determine the impact short-term programming had on participants’ overall construction of knowledge. Eight years later, the same two cohorts of students were interviewed and surveyed to evaluate their  reflections and how, if at all, their college education and construction of knowledge was impacted by their short-term study abroad experience.

The original study included four categorical sections. The focal point of the study exploring the impact on students was analyzed in four categorical areas: linguistic awareness; cross-cultural perception; attitudinal reflection; and student perception of academic skill development during the three-and-a-half-week program. This follow-up will focus specifically on the impact the short-term study abroad program had on the students, in their words, eight years after they had participated.

For background purposes, the first portion of the study summarized and described the historical development of the institution’s international study abroad term, which was specific to the institution’s College of Business. The second investigated the aims and intentions of the study abroad program from an administrative and faculty standpoint. The third described the conditions and opportunities the program model provided for students, from both the participating faculty members and students’ perspectives. The fourth section was the focal point, utilizing embedded case studies to determine the various kinds of impact that the program had on the students’ construction of knowledge.

Methodology

This follow-up study sheds light on the students’ perceptions of their experiences eight years after their participation in a three-and-a-half week overseas program. It attempts to articulate the students’ reflections and conclusions about the impact that short-term immersion programs have on their overall college career and their life now.

Forty-two students participated in the initial study. The students in the original study had participated at various levels. All 42 students kept journals and responded to a set of open-ended questions throughout the program. A second group of six students, randomly selected, kept written journals and participated in formal and informal interview sessions. Finally, three randomly selected students served as the focal points for embedded case studies. These three students participated in all data collection methods and engaged in focus group sessions and extensive participant observation following their study abroad program. The student data are reported in a narrative format in an attempt to capture, in their own words, the value of the short-term program and the extent to which it affected them, both educationally and personally.

In the follow up eight years later, a total of 23 students participated. Data were collected through a detailed survey and interviews which took place in Denver, Colorado in September 2009 through March 2010. Out of the nine randomly selected students who were the focal point of embedded case studies, eight out of nine participated in the follow-up research.

Competency vs. Intrinsic Value

Typically, quality and accomplishment of academic outcomes have been closely scrutinized in short-term study abroad programs. As Chieffo and Griffiths (2004) point out in their article, Large-scale assessment of student attitudes after a short-term study abroad program, short-term programs that purport academic rigor are a fairly recent phenomenon. In the meantime nearly half of the students earning credit overseas are doing so for a period of fewer than eight weeks, leaving educators to explain or defend with only spotty evidence what the benefits of these shorter-term sojourns might be (p. 165). However, the truth is that it is difficult to measure the quality or success of a study abroad program. Many authors have attempted to quantify quality by prescribing certain desired outcomes to international study abroad programs. These outcomes range from students’ cognitive development, to meeting national objectives, to intrinsic qualities, such as personal growth and cultural sensitivity. According to Engle and Engle (1999), “The presiding goal of study abroad, la raison d’etre distinguishing it from study on the home campus, is to present the student participants with a challenge--the emotional and intellectual challenge of direct, authentic cultural encounters and the guided reflection upon those encounters” (p.3). Examining the intrinsic or fundamental value of study abroad involves exploring evidence of overall global citizenship in comparison to academic outcomes or performance on examinations.

The key question was and still is: What impact does short-term programming have on participants’ overall construction of knowledge? If it can be determined that there is a significant impact after only three-and-a-half weeks, then institutions that promote international study abroad programs can find better ways to continue to develop their short-term programs. If we determine a positive impact, institutions can account for the academic rigor and the quality of such programs would be less of an issue. Ultimately, the goals of short-term study abroad will be redefined in terms of their intrinsic value rather than a focus on cognitive development. In the end, if it can be determined that students will emerge from these programs with a deeper appreciation for cultural differences, a more open attitude toward foreign travel and life, and a genuine interest in language acquisition, then the program should be considered valuable. It is then up to administrators and faculty to decide if these results are equally as important as conquering academic skill sets.

Primary Student Questions in the Initial Study

The student reflections in the original study were posed to determine how short-term study abroad impacts students at the undergraduate level. The data were collected for two consecutive years on two different groups that studied overseas for three-and-a-half weeks. The data were reported in a narrative format as embedded case studies in order to depict the students’ perceptions of their experience in their own words. The four categories researched were:

  • How are students impacted by the program in terms of their linguistic awareness and to what extent?
  • How are students impacted by the program in terms of their cross-cultural perceptions and to what extent?
  • How are students impacted by the program in terms of their attitudinal reflection upon return and to what extent?
  • How do the student participants feel that they have been impacted by the program in terms of their academic skill development and to what extent?

The student responses provided data that depicted highly detailed student case studies embedded into the overall institutional case. Creswell (1998) described the case study approach as an exploration of a “bounded system” that occurs over time and through detailed, in-depth data collection; it involves multiple sources of information that provide a rich context (Creswell, 1998, p. 61). Utilizing this method was useful because it led to an accurate depiction of the nature and complexity of students’ reactions and feelings in regard to their international and cultural experiences. More importantly, it facilitated the effort to capture these experiences in the students’ own words, thus revealing very clear interpretations of their experience, which were then reported in the embedded case studies.

Conclusions Reached in 2002 and 2003

To summarize, several broad conclusions were made regarding the four categorical areas in terms of the overall impact the study abroad experience had on students. The results are published in NAFSA’s The International Educator, January/February 2005 edition in an article titled: The Value of Short-Term Study Abroad: Good Faith or Hard Data? (PDF). First, through their experiences, learners built upon some of their most basic ideas about language and culture. In terms of linguistic and cultural awareness, students emerged with a greater level of sensitivity and patience. This in turn led them to move from a fundamental understanding of the concepts to a more sophisticated interpretation of the language and communication. Second, most students adapted to the practical challenges they encountered by finding mechanisms to help them cope with their new surroundings. Third, most students admitted that they initially knew very little about the countries and cities they planned to visit or had major misconceptions about the nature of the people and the overall cultural aspects of the region. Although they did some research about each destination prior to departure, the real essence of this learning about the cultural aspects and how to make sense of them, came from their first-hand experience.

The Follow-Up Questions Eight Year Later

Eight years later, 23 of the 42 students participated in a follow-up study to analyze their reflections on their experiences and how they interpret their surroundings today. A series of questions were drafted to mirror the initial primary questions. In addition, eight out of nine of the students who participated in the focus groups and emerging case studies were interviewed; again the questions and focus group discussion topics mirroring the initial study to keep it consistent. The results were gathered and conclusions portrayed in narratives exactly in the students’ words. The participants were asked to respond to the following questions:

  • How are students impacted eight years later by the program in terms of their language acquisition and linguistic awareness?
  • How are students impacted eight years later by the program in terms of their cross-cultural awareness and global mindedness?
  • How are students impacted eight years later by the program in terms of their attitudes and perceptions of international issues?
  • How do the student participants feel that they have been impacted eight years later by the program in terms of their academic and personal skill development and knowledge of their host country?

Overall Impacts Discovered in the Follow-Up Study

In Encounters with Difference: Student Perceptions of the Role of Out-of-Class Experiences in Education Abroad, Laubscher (1994) outlined a portion of the students’ perceptions of primary learning outcomes (pp. 78-94). Laubscher postulated that no study would be complete without identifying what the students felt they gained in terms of their out-of-class experiences. In each of the four categories, every attempt was made to interpret the data from the student’s perspective. Additionally, some overriding conclusions can be made with respect to short-term study abroad, which are different from longer-term programs.

Despite varying levels and degrees of development and construction of new knowledge, certain common themes emerged as a direct result of the short-term program because the students were engaged in the same program. By closely examining the students’ perceptions of their learning, both the academic and intrinsic benefits gleaned from the qualitative data illustrate that significant development took place and continues to take place even eight years later—at least in the minds of the students.

Language Acquisition and Linguistic Awareness

Several specific conclusions can be reached in each of the four research categories. With regard to their linguistic awareness, students’ perceptions of both their inability to speak a second language and their increased level of appreciation for the value of foreign language was a catalyst of profound impact.

Three definite conclusions surfaced with regard to the students’ reaction to being exposed to foreign languages during their study abroad experience. First, students were genuinely interested in trying to learn a foreign language after the completion of their study abroad program. Out of 23 responses, 13 students responded that they either are learning or have immediate plans to learn a foreign language, namely Spanish, but also German and Mandarin Chinese. Secondly, students recognized how important the overall theme of communication is in terms relaying information or messages. For example, the words “body language”, “hand signals”, “motioning”, “mannerisms”, “pointing”, and “gestures” were used frequently.

For the purposes of this study, since it does not assess language acquisition, it is necessary to define linguistic awareness. Laubscher (1994) suggested that linguistic awareness is obtained by the heightened sense of awareness one encounters as a result of traveling from one country to another (p. 69). Based on the responses in the follow-up study, the students’ responses to their language acquisition were impacted in a significant way. For example, students noted that in many cases, they could understand where an accent was from, distinguishing between Russian and Spanish or German and French. Finally, students indicated a strong interest in trying to figure out what language people were speaking when they eavesdropped on conversations that were taking place in languages other than English. One student summed up the section on language by stating in an interview: “Now I can tell foreign languages apart, before I had no clue and I did not care. The experience made me pay closer attention. I also realize that humans communicate with a lot more than just words”.

Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Global Mindedness

According to Barbara Burn (1991), monocultural people initially view the world in a limited fashion. She pointed out that no matter how globally oriented and cosmopolitan we might think that we are, each of us can make real progress toward expanding our perspective, consciousness, and empathetic understanding (p. 8). In the follow-up study, students’ perceptions gave way to conceptual themes of cultural immersion, understanding differences and the importance of respecting the views and values of other traditions and cultures. Responses also revealed their level of interest in foreign issues and international news.

On the topic of culture and what students expected to find different between their home country and the host countries visited, there were three emerging themes. The first theme is that the students thought things would be culturally different upon their arrival and they named specific things such as language, food, clothes, streets, drivers, buildings, cities, groceries, mannerisms and the feeling for each city. The overwhelming response to this was that they did not find any of these things to be vastly different from the United States, where most of them were born and raised. One student remarked: “I remember going out at night and seeing groups of young people and thinking that they are exactly the same as us. I remember thinking about human beings in general all wanting the basics. That love, good food, friendship and curiosity exist everywhere for the most part”

The second theme that emerged was that students felt strongly that they had learned things about themselves from the cross-cultural experience. The word that appeared the most, nine times, was “independence”, followed by “confidence” six times and numerous phrases along the same lines. Students used words such as: “courage”, “strength”, “stronger”, “adventurous” and “not afraid to step out of my comfort zone” to describe themselves as a result of their study abroad experience.

The third theme in this category which emerged is one of a greater respect for and appreciation of different cultures. Students made comments such as: “The world is definitely diverse”, “I appreciate the variety of cultures that exist”, “Be respectful in your attitude and the way you carry yourself when travelling”, and “Trying to speak at least a few words of the language will go a long way.” The bottom line, students concluded that diversity is good and having an appreciation for culture made them somehow better Americans.

It is also important to note here that the participants in the program also had varying experiences with this area, some stating that their level of cultural immersion was very little (seven students) while others stating their level of interacting with host country nationals was significant (eight students).

Attitudinal Reflection

This study sought to describe how the program affected the students’ attitudes toward the United States and its people, both during the trip and upon their return. In the initial study, students expressed their reflections without even being asked any directed questions about their feelings toward their home country. While their attitudes and perceptions of self and others continued to evolve over the past eight years, their reflection of what it means to be an American seemed to be far less a catalyst for profound impact than in the initial study. Only two responses indicated that Americans were somehow less cultured or more unschooled when it came to foreign matters. However, the theme that did emerge was their increased sense of knowledge and level of attention paid to international issues. There were 11 responses that directly stated students read more international news and paid closer attention to international issues as a direct result of their international experience.

One comment in an interview sums it up nicely. The student was asked; “How did these experiences contribute to your understanding of international issues?” Her response was: “Easy. Before I went to Europe, I did not care about them and now I do.” Other students commented specifically on how they paid greater attention to international affairs, citing specifically the European Union. Still others commented that they are far less judgmental and more tolerant of foreigners that live in their country.

Perceptions of Academic and Personal Skills Development

The final category explored the students’ perception of how their academic development was impacted and to what extent. For administrators and academics, this may be the most important area of the study. I was interested in what the students thought they had gained academically from their short-term overseas experience.

Initially, the study asked questions regarding the students perceived intrinsic skills, such as personal skills they may or may not have acquired as a result of their experience. It is important to remember that although the students who participated in the study abroad program did take a five-hour comprehensive final exam, this section did not attempt to define outcomes or measure competency. Rather, the study sought to illustrate how students reacted to their construction of new knowledge, as well as their own personal, somewhat intangible goals and growth patterns. This study did not attempt to define outcomes or measure competency, but it depicted, in the students’ own words, what they felt they had gained, either scholastically or personally. Eight years later, they were free to expound on this development, again in their own words. The results were astounding.

To begin, students were asked to describe specific skills they had acquired (or thought they had acquired) as a result of studying overseas. The words the students used to describe their skill sets included:

“Adaptability”, “linguistic syntax”, “cultural sensitivity”, “global perspective”, “cultural awareness”, “global awareness”, “business etiquette”, “confidence”, “competence”, “valuable travel skills”, “monetary skills”, “understanding exchange rates”, “leadership”, “reasoning”, “creativity”, ”empathy”, ”independence”, “effective communication”, “open-mindedness”, “map reading skills”, “geography” and “patience”.

Nine students also responded that they are now “open to anything” and “more well-rounded”.

One other area of impact was the fact that five students commented on specific current events they knew about which were taking place at or around the time they completed the survey. For example, two students noted that the Czech Republic was currently holding the European Union Presidency, one student noted the fall of the government in the Czech Republic, two students commented on the serious flooding that had taken place in the south of the country and in Austria, and one noted the violence which had taken place in France. This is clear evidence that not only are the students claiming to be watching CNN and reading international newspapers, but some of them are doing so.

As this study sought to identify the participant’s reflections to their experience in their own words as the initial study had done, the most profound response came to the question: “How would you describe your international experience in general and how did it impact your undergraduate experience?”

Of the 23 responses, 22 students commented that their overseas experience was the highlight of their four years of undergraduate study. Students described their experience as the defining moment of their education, the single most important aspect of their education, the best thing that ever happened to them and that studying overseas was unforgettable. One student wrote: “It was and still is one of the best things that has ever happened to me and has greatly shaped who I am and who I will become.” Another student reflected during our interview: “It was the single most significant and worthwhile thing I did while pursuing my degree, it made my four years complete.” These are powerful reflections.

During the final interviews which took place in early February 2010, I had the opportunity to speak in depth with one of the participants regarding his impressions of his experience eight years later and his plans for the future. He informed me that he had been doing a great deal of thinking about the program nearly eight years ago and stated he wanted to “put the skills I gained in Europe to work”. On March 15, 2010 I received the following email from the student:

“After much soul searching, I have decided to resign from my position with X and travel abroad and do volunteer work for an indeterminate period of time. I will be leaving in two weeks to go down to South America, where I will be teaching English to an impoverished community in Trujillo, a city along the northern coast of Peru. I will be teaching children 3 days a week and adults 2 nights a week. I cannot tell you how excited I am!”

In a follow up email several days later, he said although he loved his career and life in Denver, Colorado, it was time to get involved in something more meaningful and international. The student stated; “After studying and traveling in Europe, I feel very ready for this. I know that I can do it, even though my parents think I am crazy.” His comments indicate that he believes he has the level of competence to engage in a unique travel and teaching adventure.

What Should We Take From the Student’s Reflections, Positive or Negative or Neutral?

The results of this study confirm the findings set forth by researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities that the length of time students study overseas has no significant impact on whether they become globally engaged later in life (Fischer, 2009). If the key question was and still is: “What goals and objectives can be accomplished by utilizing a short-term model?”, then what can we conclude from the follow-up research and reflections? Here there is unmistakable evidence that the participants, at least in their minds, underwent immense self actualization and personal growth. Students noted that they were tested each day and that those experiences shaped their college careers and lives today. These participants truly believed the experience rounded out their college careers and their reflections eight years later are evidence that they felt they had accomplished something significant.

Therefore, evidence points toward significant impacts after even short-term study abroad programs. If this is true, then institutions can feel comfortable and confident with promoting international study abroad programs of this nature and can find ways to continue to develop their short-term programs. Certainly we will continue to require providers of short-term programs to account for their academic rigor and quality. However, the question of whether or not to run them at all has been answered and the answer is yes. Ultimately this may mean the goals of short-term study abroad will be redefined in terms of their intrinsic value rather than a focus on immediate cognitive development. As Sindt and Pachmayer (2007) stated in their study at the Arizona State University, an increased understanding of study abroad will help international educators better articulate and demonstrate needs at the departmental level and impact institutional policy related to international education. Since we have determined that students will emerge from these programs with a deeper appreciation for cultural differences, a more open attitude toward foreign travel and life, a genuine interest in language study, and a set of skills they perceive to be invaluable, educators are in a better position to create programs and policy for short-term overseas programs.

References

Burn, B. B. (1991). Integrating study abroad into the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum: Eight institutional case studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Chieffo L. & Griffiths, L., Large-scale assessment of student attitudes after a short-term study abroad program,” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 10 (2004):165-177.

Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Engle, J., & Engle, L. (1999). Study abroad levels: Notes towards a classification of program types. Washington DC: NAFSA.

Fischer, K. “Short Study-Abroad Trips Can Have Lasting Effect, Research Suggests.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 20, 2009.

Laubscher, M. R. (1994). Encounters with difference: Student perspectives of the role of out-of-class experiences in education abroad. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Kristine Zamastil-Vondrova is a Visiting Professor at the University of Economics, Prague and Managing Director of the European Study Abroad Center.

 
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