The profile of the American college student is changing. Seventy-five percent of undergraduates are classed as "nontraditional" (Evelyn, 2002) and thirty-nine percent are aged 25 or older (Lane, 2004). Clearly a growing number of adults are choosing to go to school, and Americans living abroad are not immune from this trend. Expatriate students include corporate workers, members of the military, English teachers, and their spouses. Factors facilitating this growth include the rise of Internet-based distance education programs, and the establishment of overseas campuses by a number of US universities. The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) alone has 51,000 students on campuses abroad, as well as about 24,000 who take classes online ("Fiscal Year," 2004).
How does living abroad affect students who plan to pursue a career in psychology in the U.S.? How can overseas students gain the experience necessary to determine that psychology is really the right choice or to gain admission into competitive graduate programs? Discussions with my fellow UMUC students suggest that the students themselves feel disadvantaged, but I hope to show that opportunities to gain relevant experience do exist.
The most important variable determining what students get out of their time abroad is language. Only those with a high degree of fluency will be able to begin a dialogue of equals with their hosts. These students are few, and will probably have access to a range of opportunities. The reality is that most Americans who go abroad--even students whose main purpose is to gain international field experience--do so with little preparation (Rai, 2004). For this reason, all of the options I suggest are accessible to the monolingual.
Telephone Counseling Lines
For those with an interest in clinical or counseling psychology, often the best place to start is volunteering on a counseling or crisis line. Fortunately, many cities with large expatriate populations have established foreign-language counseling phone lines. Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Marseilles, and Berlin, for instance, all have English lines--and some provide services in other foreign languages as well. These lines tend to be well-funded (by embassies, corporations, and religious groups) in recognition of the important service they provide the foreign community. As a result, volunteers can usually expect to work in a pleasant environment and to receive extensive training and professional supervision.
Another unusual feature is the diversity of the callers. At TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline), about two-thirds of the callers are foreign and come from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. The remaining third are Japanese--people in bicultural relationships, people working for foreign companies, or returnees, predominantly (Smith, 2003). A volunteer might use her listening skills with an Indian restaurant worker, a Japanese student, an American banker, and a Philippine homemaker all in a single shift. Unsurprisingly, a large number of part-time psychology and social work students can be found working on these lines. To find out if there is one in your area, check the following websites:
www.suicide-helplines.org/index.html [Webmaster Note: This site now forwards to www.befrienders.org]
While gaining research experience is more of a challenge for students abroad, there are options. Students who take face-to-face classes can volunteer to assist in a lab, just as their counterparts in the U.S. do. Such opportunities are likely to be limited, however.
Conducting an independent research project might be a more realistic option, especially for online students. A great deal of initiative and persistence will be required, but the basic procedure of finding an idea, writing a proposal, and approaching a faculty member for mentorship is the same for any student. Many schools such as UMUC will also allow students to earn credits through such projects. For graduate school applicants, independent projects are a good way to demonstrate your ability and motivation, and may be pursued with an eye toward possible publication.
In addition to distance education programs, students abroad increasingly have access to face-to-face classes. While your choice of format is unlikely to affect your academic performance (Miller & Lu, 2003), face-to-face classes at a foreign institution can significantly augment your education. Along with the same courses you find at any stateside institution, there will probably be some that reflect a cross-cultural emphasis or the theoretical and research "specialties" of your host country. The University of Haifa's honors program in psychology exposes students to research in areas such as "child rearing on the kibbutz [and] intergenerational transmission of the holocaust trauma" ("Honors Program," n.d.). The American University in Paris offers a number of courses with a psychoanalytic focus.
The American University in Beirut and Temple University Japan in Tokyo balance Western with non-Western perspectives in all their psychology coursework. Thus, you will routinely be presented with subject matter and theoretical models that students in the US must seek out for themselves.
I hope to have shown that expatriate psychology students have access to a "psychology" that is expansive and inclusive, and that they have opportunities to apply what they learn through research or volunteer work. But how does the experience of living, working, and studying abroad affect personal growth? No research has yet been done on these most "nontraditional" of students. Studies of younger college students on homestay or study abroad programs do suggest some positive outcomes--increased flexibility, curiosity, confidence, and self-awareness among them (Dolby, 2004; Gmelch, 1997; Stitsworth, 2001).
Students who also take the initiative to make contact with professionals will probably benefit even more. Such interactions provide a forum to ask questions, and they remind us to retain a nuanced view of cultural difference. I will never forget the response I received when I asked a Japanese psychiatrist whether he thought Rogers's active listening skills were really suited to Japanese clients. "In my experience," he said, "nobody dislikes being listened to."
Dolby, N. (2004). Encountering an American self: Study abroad and national identity. Comparative Education Review, 48, 150-173.
Evelyn, J. (2002). Nontraditional students dominate undergraduate enrollments, study finds. Chronicle of Higher Education, 48, 34.
Fiscal Year 2003 Fact Sheet. (2004). Retrieved September 29, 2004, from the University of Maryland University College, Office of Institutional Planning, Research and Accountability Web site: http://www.umuc.edu/ip/fast03.html
Gmelch, G. (1997). Crossing cultures: Student travel and personal development. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 21, 475-490.
Honors Program in Psychology. (n.d.) Retrieved September 22, 2004, from University of Haifa, Department of Overseas Studies Web site: http://overseas.haifa.ac.il/page.asp?id=53&a=a3&b=b1
Lane, K. (2004, March 11). Sen. Clinton unveils plan to help nontraditional students. Black Issues in Higher Education, 21, 6.
Miller, M. T., & Lu, M. (2003). Serving non-traditional students in e-learning environments: Building successful communities in the virtual campus. Education Media International, 40, 164-169.
Rai, G. S. (2004). International fieldwork experience: A survey of U. S. schools. International Social Work, 47, 213-226.
Smith, A. (2003). TELL 2002 Annual Report. Retrieved September 22, 2004, from http://www.telljp.com/calendar/event9.html
Stitsworth, M. H. (2001). Personality changes associated with a sojourn in Japan. Journal of Social Psychology, 129, 213-224.