Composed by Dana S Dunn, Ph.D
The world is a smaller place than it used to be and many psychology majors spend some time during their college years abroad. Many people, including students, assume that you have to stay at least a semester, perhaps two, abroad in order to satisfy university requirements. Not so. To be sure, traditional year and semester abroad programs abound, but so do summer trips of a month or even a few weeks duration. And some students have a global experience that is shorter than that—a few weeks or less. Such short-term trips often have a critical classroom component that occurs on campus before the trip and then once again after—sort of a pre- and then de-briefing regarding the international experience. So, my first point is that there are now a variety of trip possibilities for the interested psychology major.
Second, sometimes psychology majors don’t see the point of studying abroad. They assume (wrongly) that the U.S. has cornered the market on the study of psychology, or that international perspectives on behavior don’t matter as much. That’s simply not true. Besides, the point of having an international experience is not so much to learn more about psychology (if a student happens to do so, that’s great)—the point is that experiencing a different culture is about acquiring some global awareness and understanding that one’s own perspectives on life are not the only ones worth learning or thinking about. Study abroad is about broadening students’ horizons, encouraging them to see the world and themselves in new and different ways.
More practically still, international experience can make students desirable candidates for the work force, as they have likely learned to work with diverse people while having to handle their own lives far from home and their accustomed comfort zones. Such social and self-problem solving is invaluable when it comes to building appreciation for others and refining one’s own character.
Instructors of psychology who want to send their students abroad need to appreciate a few key factors about U.S. study abroad programs. These include:
- Currently, most students who study abroad are white and most also have had significant travel experiences prior to college. Programs designed to encourage minority students to seek global experiences are needed.
- Most students who study abroad are women; fewer college men take advantage of this opportunity. Advisers should encourage their male students to consider study abroad.
- Most college students who study abroad come families representing the middle to upper-middle (or higher) class. Lower income students may assume that study abroad is “not for them,” which may not be the case. Colleges and universities may need to develop programs to ensure that economic parity and opportunity is available for all students who want to study abroad.
- Many students who study abroad attend small liberal arts colleges (less than 3000 students enrolled) where international travel is encouraged. Most students, too, who go abroad attend colleges and universities on the East Coast of the U.S. Larger universities—whether regional comprehensives or research intensive—tend to send fewer students. It may well be that although such universities often have well-established study abroad programs, the average student, including the typical psychology major, may not know they exist. Faculty and administrators need to take the lead on letting students know about international opportunities.
- It needs to be said, of course, that study of a second language during college can be a doorway to international study. Students who have facility with a second language should not miss this opportunity for cultural immersion and the chance to further develop their speaking skills (which, again, may be relevant for some post-graduate employment opportunities).