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Risky Business: Student Behavior Abroad

By Jeannie M. Bonner

Most of us agree that students who choose to study abroad are intrinsically adventuresome, at least compared with students who stay home. They are, after all, willing to take the risk of immersing themselves in a new social and cultural environment. But looking back at my own behavior and (as a campus adviser) hearing the stories of study-abroad returnees, I began to wonder if risk-taking behavior actually becomes exaggerated abroad? Does the overseas experience lead students to behave in ways that are ultimately dangerous to their well-being? If so, do such patterns follow them home?

I surveyed my current study-abroad returnees to try to determine how frequently they participated in 10 risk-taking behaviors before they studied abroad, during their study abroad experience, and after they returned to the U.S. Students were asked how often they

1) consumed alcohol

2) became intoxicated

3) smoked cigarettes

4) used or tried drugs

5) were sexually active

6) asked a stranger for help or directions

7) associated with people they considered different from themselves

8) took part in “daredevil” activities

9) tried something new even though they might look foolish

10) got into a discussion where their values, beliefs, or background was challenged.

The first six of these behaviors are generally considered “negative,” and the last four are generally thought of in a “positive” way.My survey revealed that the majority of the students admitted to engaging in, often for the first time, six of the ten risk behaviors while overseas: alcohol consumption, becoming intoxicated, asking a stranger for help or directions, associating with people different from themselves, taking part in daredevil activities, and trying something new even though it might make them look foolish. With regard to alcohol use, all of the students indicated that they imbibed, because, in part they were able to do so legally overseas and not in the U.S. A majority of students reported “no change in frequency” in other behavioral patterns that we define as negative and dangerous: smoking, using drugs, being sexually active.

Increased “Positive” Risk-Taking

On the other hand, my students say they increased their positive risk-taking behavior considerably as a result of living and learning in a foreign environment. They were proud of their courage to ask a stranger for directions, to associate with people different from themselves, and to try new things even though they risked looking foolish.

To me this is worth knowing about and celebrating. It is of course debatable whether these were genuinely new behaviors or ones produced by the new environment. They opened doors to new realms of learning. But was there a carry-over? Do the students who increase their risk-taking behavior overseas continue to do so upon return to the U.S.?

My survey results suggest that none of the negative risk-taking behaviors engaged in overseas actually increased upon return to the U.S., though some students continued their behavior with the same frequency. For instance, students who say they “learned to drink” abroad realized that this was not possible at home until they reached legal age. On the positive side, it was very encouraging to see students wanting to continue to associate with people they considered “different” from themselves after they returned. They said they wanted to seek out diversity as a result of their international experience. Many students also continued to approach strangers for help when they returned, a result of increased confidence gained overseas.

In short, they became even more active learners. They also learned to reach out to others, to offer friendship and seek assistance.

The Impression on Others

My students noted that their risky behavior was seen as more acceptable among their peers than it was by the local population. The reinforcement from their peer group was important to them. This raises the question: Were they overlooking some of the new cultural cues and acting like the dreaded “Ugly Americans?”

The recognition that risk-taking behavior increases in some situations while abroad is but a first step in attempting to quantify what remains an elusive but important part of the overseas experience. I hope that research in this area will continue so that students can be better served and administrators, international educators, and parents better informed about what happens in the distant lands that forever change a student’s life.

JEANNIE M. BONNER is a Study Abroad Adviser in the University Office of International Programs at Virginia Tech.

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