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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2015

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2015 | Volume 19 | Issue 2


Why Study Abroad? What Psychology Students Have to Gain From Study Abroad Opportunities

David Earnest, PhD,
Towson University (MD)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

When most people hear the words study abroad, they think of exotic locations, adventure, and expenses. Although these thoughts are often accurate, study abroad experiences offer much more than a costly vacation to students, especially students studying psychology. The primary focus of study abroad programs is the transfer of knowledge and/or skills through experiential learning in culturally diverse settings. This focus relates strongly with the aims of psychology, understanding human behaviors, attitudes, and mental processes. Most psychologists would agree that human behaviors, attitudes, and mental process are influenced and/or dependent on culture. Therefore, if study abroad programs impart culturally oriented knowledge and skills, and the psychology field recognizes the importance of culture on human behaviors and mental processes, it benefits those seeking entrance into the field to have experienced cultural diversity. In this column, I will provide arguments for the benefits that psychology students can reap from studying abroad and participating in other culturally oriented opportunities. By no means am I claiming that you cannot succeed in the field of psychology without having studied abroad, but rather that study abroad opportunities can better prepare students for the constantly changing and more globally oriented world.

Study abroad opportunities have become a staple across many university campuses with over 250,000 students choosing to study abroad every year (Schwebel & Carter, 2010). Although humanities students do make up the largest subset of study abroad students, the number of psychology programs offered abroad is relatively scarce (Shupe, 2013). According to Shupe, few study abroad psychology courses exist despite recommendations from the American Psychological Association (APA, 2011) that all psychology faculty and departments should offer more experiential learning opportunities such as study abroad. These APA recommendations come partly from literature indicating increased student outcomes (i.e., greater engagement, learning, personal and social development, and practical competence) associated with study abroad and other high-impact learning practices (Gonyea, Kinzie, Kuh, & Laird, 2008; Kuh, 200). However, student gains do vary based on variations in length of program, topics covered, and amount of cultural interaction.

Having been a faculty director for two psychology study abroad programs to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and currently planning a third to Rome and Florence, Italy, I have enjoyed the privilege of sharing unique experiential learning opportunities with my students. As an educator, and industrial and organizational psychologist, I have seen the benefits of these study abroad experiences. Although many benefits may exist, the benefits of participating in a study abroad trip can be broken down into two broad categories—professional and personal growth.

Professional Growth

As an educator with an interest in the workplace, I spend much of my class time trying to facilitate student professional growth. Professional growth involves the development of knowledge, skills, and mental frameworks that prepare an individual for their desired profession or future state. Although there are many aspects of professional growth that may be influenced through study abroad opportunities, this column will focus on the areas of cultural competence and knowledge application.

Cultural competence can be defined as the ability of an individual to interact with persons from other cultures. As technology brings us all closer together and the workplace expands to become more global, the likelihood that we will be required to interact with individuals from different cultures is almost certain. Being cognizant of the individual differences that exist has long been the foundation of psychology. As such, gaining exposure to different cultures, ways of thinking, and new perspectives is directly applicable to students seeking to work with clients and individuals from our culturally diverse society. During study abroad programs, students routinely interact with host country residents in social and workplace settings. Going out to dinner, visiting an organization, and riding public transportation while abroad can all be great ways that students can immerse themselves in a foreign culture, and study cultural similarities and differences.

Knowledge application involves applying learned content to real world situations. Psychology is the study of people, and therefore information learned in the classroom can and should be applied to individuals outside of the classroom environment. Whether enrolled in abnormal, developmental, or social psychology, content knowledge gained by students is easily applied to our everyday lives. However, in our everyday lives, most of us choose to associate with people who share common attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. When studying abroad, we enter into a world that is new and can be remarkably different than our own. While abroad, students are given the opportunity to use what they have learned in psychology courses on a global scale. Students may apply what they have learned from cross-cultural courses to identify accepted means of communication, clinical courses to understand their means of coping with new situations, social courses to find common ground with host country residents, and industrial courses to relate to stressful customer service encounters. Study abroad programs provide students with a means to apply their knowledge and skills in a larger and more complex sandbox than can typically be experienced domestically.

Personal Growth

Part of my role as a professor is to aid students in their personal growth. Personal growth can be described as the development of skills and abilities that are integrated into a person’s identity. Similar to professional growth, study abroad opportunities may aid in the development of many areas of personal growth. I have chosen to highlight two areas in which I have witnessed development, independence and adaptability.

Independence is a term that is thrown around often as we advance from childhood into adulthood. In its simplest form, independence refers to our ability to be self-reliant. For many of us, the college experience is a rite of passage that provides us the opportunity to gain independence and become our own person. Similarly, studying abroad can be seen as a means to build self-confidence through immersion in a foreign country and culture, a new and sometimes anxiety-provoking situation. In a new place or country, even going to get coffee without your friends or classmates can be an adventure in learning about your comfort with new situations and challenges. By exposing oneself to new cultures, people, and situations, you may learn things about your limitations, strengths, and independence that might have otherwise remained hidden.

Adaptability is a word with many meanings. In terms of studying abroad, I would use adaptability to describe a person’s capacity to adapt to new and changing situations. When in our everyday routines, life can be predictable, and we may rarely face challenges or obstacles. While abroad, challenges and obstacles are often everyday occurrences. Exposure to new and potentially stressful situations and challenges is required to understand one’s adaptability. When faced with adversity or a new situation, our ability to adapt may be tested and result in personal growth.

Are there barriers to studying abroad? Absolutely. Studying abroad can be expensive, time consuming, and scary. Although scholarships and financial aid do exist, study abroad programs can be cost prohibitive. Is studying abroad for everyone? Absolutely not. Not everyone has a desire to travel across the world and be immersed in new cultures while away from family and friends. Is studying abroad the only way to experience professional and personal growth? Again, a firm no. Becoming involved in culturally oriented clubs or groups, taking culturally focused classes, and challenging oneself to meet new people and partake in activities outside of your comfort zone can all impact the professional and personal skills and abilities mentioned in this article. However, studying abroad is a unique opportunity that provides experiences that prove hard to mimic in classroom settings. Study abroad programs involve exotic locations, adventure, and expenses while also providing psychology students with the benefits of professional and personal growth. Should you study abroad? My response . . . Why not?


American Psychological Association. (2011). The APA principles for quality undergraduate education in psychology. Retrieved from

Gonyea, R. M., Kinzie, J., Kuh, G. D., & Laird, T. N. (2008). High-impact activities: What they are, why they work, and who benefits. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schwebel, D. C., & Carter, J. (2010). Why more psychology majors should study abroad. Psychology and Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 47, 17–21.

Shupe, E. I. (2013). The development of an undergraduate study abroad program: Nicaragua and the psychology of social inequity. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 124–129. doi:10.1177/0098628312475032

David Earnest, PhD, is an assistant 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 realistic job previews, recruitment, 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 2015 (Vol. 19, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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