How studying abroad may affect your personality

As some of you may already know, I studied abroad for a semester during the first year of my Master’s studies. Last year I devoted a whole blogpost to the struggle of going ‘home’ after living for six months in a different country (it’s right here). While I’ve been back in Belgium for over two years now, I believe my Erasmus experience still has an impact on me and is never far away. By moving 200 kilometers to the North a whole new world opened up for me. A world I’m still discovering. While the experience was nerve wrecking at times and caused a lot of insecurities, it also made me more aware of different cultures. It sparked an interest to learn about the immense diversity and to expand my vision of the world. When I started courses back in Gent, people told me I seemed more open and not as mysterious as before. Not sure if it was meant as a compliment but it sure indicated I had changed. Of course my personal journey of change isn’t enough to conclude on the impact of studying abroad. Luckily some (but not nearly enough) investigation has been done on the subject and I will go through the findings with you now!

As with every concept in psychology -it’s not an exact science after all- inconsistency and disagreement is omnipresent. People generally seem to be okay with the idea that a semester or year abroad is positive for a person’s academic and professional career. I can’t say this was my motivation to apply for the position though. For me it was more about escaping and starting over somewhere new, the same intent I had when starting my studies in a new city after graduating high school. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work. What I did expect and noticed is that the majority people I met in Amsterdam had certain things in common and grew in a similar direction. What image pops up in your mind when you think of a typical exchange student (=sojourner)? An extravert, independent and confident person (who likes to party). Am I right? I also imagined expats to be more open minded and interested in other cultures. Another assumption that got proven in my particular example.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain 

The problem with a lot of the conducted studies is that they ‘forgot’ to measure personality traits before the pupils left to study abroad. This makes it very hard to tell if the difference at the end of the placement between exchange students and the ones who stayed at home is caused by the placement itself or if there was already a significant discrepancy before the experiment even started. The research study carried out by Clarke et al. in the United States is such an example. They measured several intercultural influences of studying a semester abroad and compared this with a control group that stayed on campus. They concluded that the exchange students grew in intercultural proficiency (competence), openness to cultural diversity and were more globally minded than the control group. There is unfortunately no way of proving a causal relation with this kind of research design.

Yes, this is the Netherlands

Luckily T.R. Williams did include a pretest when investigating the topic. She found that exchange students exhibited a greater change in intercultural adaptability (the willingness and ability to adapt your way of communicating, motivating and managing across borders) and sensitivity (the degree of awareness that there are cultural differences and similarities between people, without assuming that some cultures are superior to others) than the control group. These two aspects are considered to be the keystones of intercultural communication skills. Additionally they found that exposure to various cultures was the greatest predictor of the growth in these skills. I don’t know about other exchange programs but in Amsterdam I lived with a crazy variety of cultures. I shared a floor with 9 guys and a girl from Portugal, the US, Bulgaria, Brazil, Finland, Turkey, Croatia and Curacao. My two closest girl friends were Lebanese and Serbian. Can’t get any more diverse than that! So I can pat myself on the back, knowing that I’m probably possessing crazy intercultural communication skills.

A study that brings all aspects together and thankfully included a pre-departure and post-departure measurement was done by J. Zimmermann and F. Neyer in Germany (2013). They assessed the Big Five and already found a difference between the groups before the exchange period. The sojourners showed a greater preference for meeting and engaging with people (extraversion), curiosity and a preference for novelty (openness to experience) and were less prone to psychological stress (neuroticism).

The researched did find that both the control group as the exchange group went through changes. This is no surprise considering the age and life phase of the students. These change however were more profound for the students going abroad. They saw an increase in openness and agreeableness (a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative towards others) while there was no significant change in the control group. The experimenters also found an increase in extraversion, even though this growth was similar among both groups. There was a comparable decrease in conscientiousness (being dependable and well-organized) but the results concerning neuroticism are of greater importance. Zimmermann and Neyer found that by aging, people become more able of coping with unpleasant emotions in an adaptive manner. This decrease of neuroticism was more pronounced for students who spent a longer period abroad. The researcher concluded that studying outside of the borders of your own country accelerates the process of personal growth. They determined that the creation of a new social network en building new relationships is an important explaining mechanism for this growth.

“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Alright, time to back it up. This is a lot of information and quite hard to put together. We can summarize that research supports the idea that people become more inter-culturally skilled by studying abroad. They grow in competence and self-reliance, they have a more open view of cultural diversity and adapt more easily to a different culture. While students who choose to take the big step to leave their country were already more extravert, agreeable and emotionally stable, the experience facilitated their personal growth. By spending an extended period of time away from your own social support system, you need to build new relationships. You get ripped from your comfort zone and have to adapt to new people and new practices. The whole experience of leaving your safe nest and building something new abroad helps you to put things in perspective. This facilitates the decrease of neuroticism. No two countries are the same, however close they may be to each other. There are always nuances in language, typical types of food, attitudes, beliefs. Through communicating with people with a different background, you promote your openness. By meeting new people you also get the change to develop your agreeableness. Everybody on board now?

I think it’s fair to say that studying abroad doesn’t change your personality drastically. You don’t come back a completely different person. My experience however is that the circumstances push you to grow more rapidly. In order to have a pleasant stay in a different country, you have to be independent and at the same time reach out to others. This isn’t possible without an open mind and the love for human contact. I feel like the research discussed here is a perfect addition to what I already described in my previous blogpost. The observed personal growth is not linked to the particular country you studied in but to the diversity of people you encounter and the relationships you build.

Can I just take a minute to point out how open minded all of us were in Amsterdam? I mean, we spent days learning how to juggle and slackline. We jumped in a frozen lake in February. I watched Pitched Perfect with the boys (and they liked it). They introduced me to psytrance. Almost my whole floor (+ extras) came with me to my home town. We discussed history, politics and disputes within or between countries until late in the night. We cooked traditional dinners for each other.  And most importantly we played ‘name the next thing that comes into your mind’ game for hours straight when we should have been studying. Those were the day.

In September I leave again to volunteer in North Wales for a year with the European Solidarity Corps. I’m eager to see if this experience forces me to grow even further. I’ll definitely keep you guys updated!

 

 

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