"It will change your life. You'll come back a new person." For years, the benefits of study abroad have been described in these words. Everyone in the study abroad field believed it could greatly impact a student's life, but the exact long-term benefits were unknown - until now.
The first large-scale survey to explore the long-term impact of study abroad on a student's personal, professional, and academic life shows that study abroad positively and unequivocally influences the career path, world-view, and self-confidence of students.
The Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) surveyed alumni from all IES study abroad programs from 1950 to 1999. Regardless of where students studied and for how long, the data from the more than 3,400 respondents (a 23 percent response rate) shows that studying abroad is usually a defining moment in a young person's life and continues to impact the participant's life for years after the experience.
"Overall, I learned a lot more about myself in that one semester than I did in the three and a half years in my home school because of the unique space in which I learned, experienced, and spent exploring another culture," says Carolyn Valtos (IES Adelaide, 1992).
An overwhelming majority of respondents echoed Valtos' feeling. When asked about personal growth, 97 percent said studying abroad served as a catalyst for increased maturity, 96 percent reported increased self-confidence, 89 percent said that it enabled them to tolerate ambiguity, and 95 percent stated that it has had a lasting impact on their world view.
Findings also show that study abroad leads to long-lasting friendships with other U.S. students and still impacts current relationships. More than half the respondents are still in contact with U.S. friends met while studying abroad, and 73 percent said the experience continues to influence the decisions they make in their family life.
Alexa Sand (IES Milan, 1989), who is still very close to U.S. friends she met abroad ten years ago, explains, "I think the shared experience of living fully immersed in another culture made these friendships particularly poignant and enduring."
Study abroad educators often assert that one of the goals of study abroad is to train future global leaders to be more effective, respectful of other cultures and political and economic systems, and willing to take a stand for the world's welfare, not just what benefits a specific country. The survey findings indicate that study abroad is succeeding in its mission.
When questioned about intercultural development, 98 percent of respondents said that study abroad helped them to better understand their own cultural values and biases, and 82 percent replied that study abroad contributed to their developing a more sophisticated way of looking at the world.
"The experience of living and studying in another country was so eye-opening ... [it] tested preconceptions and habits I wasn't even aware were so ingrained in me," says Cynthia Perras (IES Paris, 1981).
It is significant to note that these intercultural benefits are not fleeting but continue to impact participants' lives long after their time abroad. Almost all of the respondents (94 percent) reported that the experience continues to influence interactions with people from different cultures, and 23 percent still maintain contact with host-country friends. Ninety percent said that the experience influenced them to seek out a greater diversity of friends, and 64 percent said that it also influenced them to explore other cultures.
"It has been nearly ten years since I was a student in Vienna, but not a single day goes by where its impact is not felt in my life," says Jason Thornberg (IES Vienna, 1994). "My time there fundamentally changed how I view the world and has given me the ability to view the world, and its issues, from several perspectives."
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