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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2016

Dual Perspectives on Studying Abroad in Psychology

Nia Jones and David R. Earnest, PhD, Towson University (MD)
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Culturally diverse experiences and the associated skills gained from these opportunities have become part of many undergraduate psychology programs. Furthermore, these skills are becoming more sought after in the workforce as organizations and institutions become more globally minded. As such, psychology departments are offering more study abroad programs, and psychology students are becoming more interested in the benefits gained from these experiences. This column presents two perspectives on study abroad benefits: one from an undergraduate psychology major who has studied abroad and another from a study abroad program faculty director.
Study Abroad: A Student’s Perspective
Experience. During my junior year of undergraduate studies, I began to ache for an educational experience that was more interactive than the daily classroom lecture. I have always been interested in traveling and learning about different cultures, so I went to a study abroad fair at Towson and was immediately sold. The opportunity to study what I love, psychology, almost anywhere in the world excited me. I chose to enroll in a faculty-led program, TU Culture & Psychology: Italy From a Psychological Perspective.
The moment we touched down in Rome and dropped our bags off at the hotel, we hit the ground running. The breathtaking scenery and architecture churned our curiosity and excitement. The trip consisted of split time in Rome and Florence where we visited The Vatican, museums, businesses, markets, gardens, crypts, palaces, churches, and many other sites. We had class time most mornings that largely incorporated discussions conceptualizing our experiences and developing new perspectives. Guest speakers from various businesses, organizations, and schools who shared their experiences were highlights of the program.
You might be surprised how much you can pack into a two-and-a-half week trip. Now, in my last semester of senior year, my only regret is not choosing a longer trip. I can only imagine how much more could be explored in a full semester- or year-long trip.
Life lessons. Aside from the obvious fact that I fell in love with the people and culture, the program taught me plenty of life lessons that simply cannot be learned in a classroom. Traveling with people I did not know before the program and having limited, if any, cell phone service helped us to branch out and see the world in fresh ways.
My study abroad experience also taught me networking skills. I feel more comfortable going to my professors to pick their brains, or even talking to someone in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Being abroad teaches you how to interact and collaborate with people from different backgrounds and walks of life, an incredibly valuable skill to possess.
Intercultural competence. Being abroad helps develop a global mindset, allowing you to see things from a new perspective. Intercultural competence is something not a lot of students learn or truly understand because it is a skill that must be practiced. As the world constantly changes and shrinks in many ways, we must better understand and be able to interact with people from different cultures. Intercultural competence promotes a better understanding of the people and things around us, and fosters more meaningful communication. Prior to traveling to Italy, I thought I was pretty “cultured” or diverse in my thinking. I quickly realized how ethnocentric we Americans can be. Thanks to one of the guest speakers, I began to see deep contrasts between Italian and American culture. Until you cross borders and seas, you never truly grasp this sort of enlightenment that life can supply.
Some might say, “Well, yes, I have traveled abroad. I have been places,” but that is not quite the same. When you are with other students, engrossed in another culture, and provided with the proper preparation for how to meaningfully internalize your experience, it becomes an even deeper journey. After studying abroad, you even appreciate your home, family, and friends more. You learn to see your country from a different perspective, and this will foster your thirst for seeing other parts of the world.
Academics. Although psychology is not as actively studied in Italy, I still gained much academically, professionally, and personally. Completing assigned journal entries helped me to articulate and process my experiences, making it easier to transfer what I gained abroad to my classroom back home. Being abroad helped me appreciate my strengths and address my weaknesses. It made me look at my education in a new way while helping me to determine my path in life. It sharpened my language skills considering how little I knew of the Italian language beforehand. It opened my eyes to the possibilities that extend further than Towson, Maryland. In this ever-growing global market place of our world, we increasingly come in contact with many cultures and people. To land the job of our dreams and effectively thrive in it, developing these cultural skills is essential.
Study Abroad: A Faculty Perspective
Academics. Study abroad programs (short-term or semester-long) provide ideal environments for experiential learning. They allow students to learn about other cultures and people while learning academic content in real-world situations. One can learn about the history and culture of ancient Romans by visiting the Coliseum in Rome while interacting with current Romans and learning how the society of today is similar to the ancient society of long ago. Study abroad programs provide opportunities for students to learn about other cultures and societies by interacting with their people. Real-world examples and scenarios in other countries can help students apply their current knowledge and skills to the problems of tomorrow.
Intercultural competence. Intercultural competencies are a skill set wherein individuals are able to interact and work with individuals from diverse contexts. Study abroad programs provide immersive cultural experiences that are very difficult to recreate in a classroom environment. Through interactions with individuals from other parts of the world and from other societies, students develop competence that will aid them in their future endeavors. As the global community becomes more tightly connected, intercultural skills are becoming a highly valued and adaptable skillset. By better understanding the perspectives and ways of thinking of others, students can more readily adapt to diverse situations with individuals from all walks of life, domestically or internationally.
Independence. Part of studying abroad is about gaining the confidence to travel to new locations and meet new people without the comforts and support of the familiar. Being an autonomous individual who can adapt to diverse situations and the unknown is an important life skill. During study abroad programs, students are presented with many opportunities to exert their independence through their choices of activities in which to participate, sites to visit, people to meet, and experiences to embrace. Sticking to the familiar and safe is natural, but there are times when welcoming the new and different can help people grow in a variety of ways.
Shine. Study abroad programs are an opportunity for students to stand out from the crowd. Only a small percentage of students are able to and want to partake in this type of academic experience. Choosing to study abroad can be a resource in your personal and professional branding and can garner attention from future employers. For those who seek out and embrace all of the opportunities available while abroad, the experiences they gain can become real-world examples of triumph, adventure, and the overcoming of challenges.
What better time is there to study abroad than now? If you do not believe studying abroad is right for you, we urge you to think again. Each and every student can gain something from studying abroad including greater independence, mindfulness, gratefulness, empathy, and confidence. The tools for succeeding in one’s profession and in bettering oneself can be found through life-changing experiences like these. Take the initiative, get out there, and embrace the world.

Nia Jones was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. She is a recent graduate from Towson University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Nia has worked for Refugee Youth Project, collaborating and leading projects for this nonprofit organization. Nia plans to pursue graduate studies in the upcoming year, specializing in clinical psychology. In her spare time, she enjoys taking and teaching youth dance classes. She believes dance not only improves children’s physical health but also their self-confidence and self-esteem. Nia enjoys traveling and the broader understanding of diverse culture it can inspire.

David Earnest, PhD,
is an associate professor of psychology at Towson University (MD) where he teaches courses in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Behavioral Statistics, Introduction to Psychology, and Study Abroad in Psychology. He earned his PhD in psychology from the University of Memphis (TN; 2010). Dr. Earnest’s research interests include recruitment, intercultural competence, and teaching psychology through experiential learning. As an industrial and organizational psychologist, he has experience in recruitment and selection procedures, program evaluation, and experimental methodology across business, health care, education, civil service, and military organizations.


Copyright 2016 (Volume 21, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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