Studying abroad has become a very popular activity for college students in the United States. It is the product of many goals that both universities and students have when it comes to what they consider a valuable education. Colleges implement study abroad programs into their curriculums in order to give students many abilities and experiences that people look to get out of their education these days. These abilities and experiences include, “…global learning and development, intercultural competence, intercultural maturity, and intercultural sensitivity of students” (1). Students turn to study abroad programs to “…gain diverse attitudes, intercultural skills, and learning within a discipline” (1). These gains do not come immediately, however. It is when students journey outside of their comfort zone and go through the psychological processes that take place that they can fully reap the benefits of such a rich experience.
Studying Abroad: A Mind Exercise
Studying abroad requires students to make a dramatic transition from their normal routines at home, to a new one in an entirely different culture. One person who has successfully made this transition is Emmie Herbstman, a junior at the University of Michigan who is studying abroad in Barcelona. Herbstman spent the semester before this back in Ann Arbor, and arrived in Barcelona in early January. As a sojourner, or “…temporary visitor to another country who [will] return to [her] home country,” , she has had to adapt to the different social norms, expectations, and lifestyle of Barcelona (2). This is quite an undertaking, as there are several psychological processes that must occur in order to become fully adjusted.
Without knowing it, Herbstman has gone through an intense psychological development period in which she has subconsciously engaged in a roller coaster of emotions in response to her experiences abroad. An entire sub-category of psychology known as cross-cultural psychology focuses purely on the effects on behavior and thought processes that traveling across different cultural boundaries causes.
There are different emotions and feelings associated with each step a sojourner must take in order to have a successful journey. These are important for students who are considering going abroad to be aware of so they somewhat know what to expect. The first phase consists of the preparation for the trip: packing, anticipating, and getting organized for a new lifestyle. The second phase occurs during the journey itself: becoming aware of the cultural differences, figuring out which cultural differences feel comfortable and which feel unnatural, and a greater understanding of the home culture as a matter of fact (2). Then, sojourners take part in the most difficult phase there is: adjustment. This requires both being aware of the differences and changing how one would normally respond to such differences in a home country to a more accepting, understanding way. Not surprisingly, students who study abroad often experience emotional discomfort, mental exhaustion, and physiological stress from the constant realization that they are far from home (2). The impact of these phases and emotions were not too intense for Herbstman, as she has had a pretty smooth adjustment to the ways of Barcelona.
Below is an interview with Herbstman about her experience abroad so far and how she has felt about it:
Where It All Began
Studying abroad: a time to grow, to experience, to make mistakes, and to learn. People have thought of international education in this way for many years, even centuries. Believe it or not, there is a vast history when it comes to the evolution of studying abroad. Emo of Friesland has been deemed the first person to ever study abroad as he travelled from his hometown in northern Holland to study at Oxford University in 1190 (4). Napoleon’s efforts to bring together all of Europe ignited thoughts about opening up boundaries, and after the Napoleonic Wars, the peace congressed raised topics that served as a leeway to the formation of an international education system. An organization was established in Europe in 1876 which would work to develop and maintain international education (4).
In America, the first abroad student came to study from Greece in 1835. Following this, Indiana University provided students with summer trips to countries in Europe where classes would count toward their academic requirements in the US (4). International education was slowly but surely becoming more common and understood as a way to expand on one’s education.
And finally, in 1919, the Institute of International Education (IIE) was established and studying abroad started moving quickly into the minds of students. As technology and communication abilities improved, studying abroad became a much more popular interest (4).
And Where We Are Now
As technology and communication improvements have led to the proliferation of students studying abroad, they may also be the reason that the emotional roller coaster has not been so intense for Emmie Herbstman. During the preparation stage, Herbstman was able to stay in contact with people she knows who have also been abroad to Barcelona and instantly receive advice from them about what to pack, what to do in Barcelona, and what to expect. Since this is the case, the realizations of cultural differences were definitely still apparent to Herbstman, but may have come as more of a shock had she not talked to other Americans her age who experienced the same transition. Communication and technology have also brought together people from all different parts of the world and have spread shared beliefs, interests, and knowledge across continent boundaries. In a highly advanced, bustling, and rather international city like Barcelona, these blurred boundaries can be felt. During the adjustment phase, students can have an easier time since they can easily stay in contact with those back at home. Before technology allowed global communication to be so accessible, sojourners could not feel as strong ties to home as they can these days.
Communication and technology advancements have not only led to an easier connection between students who study abroad and their home countries, but also a connection with countries that surround them in their temporary homes as well. Study abroad students often take advantage of their time abroad to see and experiences cultures outside the country they choose to study in. Instead of being sojourners in these other countries, they become tourists, and usually only see the place they travel to for a weekend or so in between classes. Herbstman has traveled to a different part of Europe for the majority of the weekends she has been abroad. Websites make it easy to plan trips, find cheap flights, and view tourists’ and locals’ ratings on places to stay and eat.
Below is a video summary of the routine that this one study abroad student has adapted, which helps make the adjustment to a new culture easier. The video includes her everyday life, and well as some of the trips she has made over the weekends.
- Braskamp, Larry A., David C. Braskamp, and Kelly Merrill. “Assessing progress in global learning and development of students with education abroad experiences.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 18 (2009): 101-118.
- Sussman, Nan M. “Sojourners to another country: The psychological roller-coaster of cultural transitions.” Online readings in psychology and culture 8.1 (2002): 1-11.
- Smyth, Karen. “Sojourners 2.” Intercultural Interactions Psychology. CEA. Lecture.
- Lee, Megan. “The Complete History of Study Abroad.” Go Overseas. Go Overseas, 17 Apr. 2012. Web.