20 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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The impact of study abroad on the student self

Despite the growth, proliferation and diversification in global higher education, internationalisation is not a new phenomenon for universities. However, the scope and complexity of internationalisation have expanded and deepened at an unprecedented pace over the past decade, fuelled by processes of economic, social and cultural globalisation and localisation.

The results of the International Association of Universities’ 3rd global survey showed that outgoing mobility for students, student exchanges and attracting international students continue to be the highest priority activities within institutional internationalisation policies.

However, the current global economic crisis has seen governments and institutions impose limits on certain internationalisation activities. The UK coalition government’s harsh crackdown on immigration may stand out as one typical example.

It is not surprising that such an ideologically driven approach to immigration policies is under increasing criticism because it is, at least in part, in conflicting interest with most higher education institutions’ internationalisation agendas to increase their international profiles, develop academic extension, secure their financial health and gain a competitive edge in the global competition for talent.

Our research on Chinese students who have studied in the UK found that despite intense intercultural challenges and struggles, most international students have managed to survive the demands of a different learning and living environment, and to adapt, develop and achieve.

At the deepest level, studying and living abroad was a profound transformational experience. This process of change and transformation was accompanied by a growth of their maturity and interculturality, which enabled students to view, understand and live life from a new sense of self and, through this, function effectively within both their host and home countries.

Key observations of international students’ journey of study abroad include:

  • International students come to the UK for language and cultural experiences but primarily for academic accreditation. While some students may have fitted in better socially than others, most have managed to achieve in their academic studies.
  • Academic achievement and personal independence are the most important achievements for most students.
  • The most profound change lies in their success (or otherwise) in managing the influences that challenge their existing identities.
  • There is an important relationship between students’ sense of belonging, identity and self-efficacy (the belief that they can achieve and succeed).
  • Students have experienced three major aspects of change: i) interculturality: cross-intercultural experiences; ii) maturity: human growth and development; and iii) intellectual development.

    The vast majority of the 600+ Chinese returnees in our research rated their study abroad experience as highly valuable for their career progression, particularly related to their professionalism and positive international outlook, improved specialist knowledge and work ethics, improved communication and problem-solving skills, and better time management.

    They negotiated and reconstructed their personal and professional identities at the interface between cultural and social values, norms and behaviours while studying abroad.

    Having returned to China, their study-abroad experiences were found to continue to influence the changes in their personal and professional selves over time. This was despite the fact that certain values and identities that were established earlier in life in China were more resilient and robust to change than others.

    In particular, their change and transformation over time was found to occur at four inter-related identity levels.

    At the personal level, students enjoyed enhanced self-efficacy, independence and international awareness. Being able to work under pressure and think more critically was treasured by the returnees.

    In terms of performance, they found that their broadened life experience and interests provided them with a different identity at work. Compared with their peers, they were more confident about taking on leadership roles and dealing with change and initiatives.

    At the relationship level, they learned to accept the diversity of the world and thus found themselves to be more flexible and open-minded compared with their colleagues.

    Finally, at the communal level, they were more comfortable about working in teams at work and in their social lives and their overseas experiences enabled them to know and appreciate more about their own Chinese backgrounds and home culture.

    In sum, when exposed to a different societal and educational context, international students are constantly engaged in a reflexive process of change, adjustment and development through interaction with others in the UK educational and societal environment.

    On their return home, the returnees not only bring new cognitive, social and emotional experiences, but also engage in new processes of re-enculturation, socialisation and professionalisation.

    Evidence points to well-being connections between language mastery, social interaction, personal development and academic outcomes in relation to intercultural adaptation, indicating that identity change is the key to their success.

    * Dr Qing Gu is an associate professor in the school of education at the University of Nottingham, UK. This article is based on research by Qing Gu and Professor Christopher Day at the University of Nottingham and Dr Michele Schweisfurth at Birmingham University.
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