Studying abroad and its unexpected side effects

325,339 students from universities across the United States went on study abroad programs in the academic year 2015/2016. This represents sixty per cent of the U.S.’s student population, and this number is growing by almost four per cent each year.  Needless to say, the study abroad phenomenon is a force to be reckoned with.

Promoted through promises of self-discovery, global citizenship, and lifelong friendships, these study abroad programs often tout the effects of the experience on the individual.  A quick search on the internet and it becomes clear that these claims are well supported by a multitude of studies,most of which conclude that study abroad programs have an overwhelmingly positive impact on students.  For example,a study conducted by the Institute for International Education of Students (IES) on students from 1950 through 1999 showed that 97 percent of the respondents felt their study aboard experience resulted in increased maturity, and 96 percent felt an increase in self-confidence. Praise for study abroad programs is also found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,in a study by Julia Zimmerman which revealed that spending time abroad enhanced personal development in openness and emotional stability.

But, as a student abroad studying International Relations, I wonder: what potential does this trend have to influence international relations? First of all, it is important to understand the basic assumptions made by International Relations theorists.  Many liberal scholars have hypothesized that by breaking down the barriers between nations through cross-border contact, a feeling of shared international community will develop and that this in turn will be a pacifying force. On the other hand, however, realists have hypothesized that growing cross-border contact will exacerbate feelings of difference and thus heighten feelings of nationalism. So, what can study abroad students tell us about these hypotheses?

Image Courtesy of Thompson Rivers University via Flickr © 2015, some rights reserved

Through my research I have found that I am not alone in my curiosity. In 2014 Calvert Jones, an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland in the Department of Government and Politics, published a study that tested these assumptions by recording the feelings of study abroad students before and after their experiences on criteria such as sense of international community, threat perception, and nationalism.  By collecting this data from more than 500 students from 11 colleges across the United States, Jones made several fascinating observations.

The first two points of exploration, feelings of international community and level of threat perception, were constructed to evaluate the liberal hypothesis that cross-border contact will build a sense of international community as well as reduce the degree of perceived threats posed by countries in question.  Jones found that students did not return from abroad with a heightened sense of shared fundamental values, but it in fact they returned with less of a sense of similarity.  However, when it came to levels of threat perception, Jones discovered the opposite: students returned from abroad with alower threat perception of their host country. Thus, it becomes clear that while cross-border contact may not be a factor in creating an international community of shared values, it does reduce threat perception.  Perhaps, as Jones suggests, this is an indicator that the existence of an international community based on common fundamental values may not be necessary for a more peaceful world.

The third and final round of assessment was based on the realist assumption that increased cross-border interaction would lead to intensifying senses of nationalism which according to Huntington’s, ‘Clash of civilizations’ hypothesis suggests, will lead to conflict between civilizations. By testing the level and type of nationalistic sentiment the subjects felt before and after their time abroad, it was concluded that students’ sense of nationalism increased in regards to American literature, arts, armed forces, athletes, and political influence; however, Jones reports that, ‘they did not display a heightened belief in America’s superiority […] So while cross-border contact heightened nationalism, it did not appear to promote a virulent or chauvinistic form of it’.

Bring all these conclusions together and it suggests that both liberalists and realists are wrong and right at the same time. So, what does this mean? Like Jones, I believe this data reveals that the increasing popularity of study abroad programs is a positive force in the international system.  While studying abroad may not be the stimulant for the creation of the international community traditionally projected by liberal scholars, the results of this study paints a new future for the international landscape, one where individuals are proud of their own cultural background while accepting the differences of others peacefully. For once in international relations the future looks bright; difference is no longer scary.



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