Editor's note: This is the thirteenth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
As our society continues to expand globally, it is crucial that college students competently work with, relate to, and understand others from all parts of the world. One opportunity for university students to increase these pertinent intercultural competencies is to study abroad during college. Larkin (2008, ¶1) noted, For many students, studying abroad is the most powerful experience of their undergraduate careers. Even though it may be a life-changing experience, the number of students going abroad is still miniscule, with only 241,791 U.S. college students studying abroad in the 20062007 academic year (Bhandari & Chow, 2008).
In order to continually increase the number of students studying abroad, advocates across campus must promote these unforgettable experiences. Academic advisers are in great positions to encourage students to participate in education abroad opportunities by sharing the positive outcomes associated with them. One positive outcome that can be associated with studying abroad is an increase in intercultural competency skills. The purpose of this article is to educate academic advisers about study abroad and its positive affect on the intercultural competencies of students. This process begins by reviewing the comments of University of South Carolina (USC) study abroad participants.
The University of South Carolina Study Abroad Office has a variety of study abroad options available to students, including semester, academic year, and short-term abroad programs. One specific short-term program was chosen this year as the subject of an informal research project focusing on students' intercultural competence. This two-and-a-half-week study abroad program provided a group of twenty-two USC students an opportunity to study at Ming Chuan University in Taipei, Taiwan, in May 2008. To gain an understanding of student experiences in Taiwan, as they relate to intercultural competence, three students were randomly chosen as research participants. E-mail surveys were utilized before and after the Taiwan program to gauge pre- and post-travel intercultural competencies. While in Taiwan, these students were interviewed individually to elicit their thoughts on the study abroad experience. Their answers to the questions are used as the centerpiece of this article to capture the essence of whether and how students increased their intercultural competence skills as a result of participation in this study abroad program.
Each student participating in the Taiwan program was required to take a three-credit-hour course called Modern Taiwanese Culture and Society. This course included study components throughout the spring semester as well as during the student's stay in Taiwan and after he or she returned to the United States. First, students completed eight contact hours of pre-departure course work, which included historical, cultural, political, and economic aspects of Taiwan. Students reviewed scholarly journals in preparation for class, presented group projects, reflected in journal entries, and reviewed current events to increase their knowledge of the country and culture.
All three student interviewees mentioned that the classes gave them a snapshot of the history and culture of Taiwan. One student stated, I definitely learned things I did not know about Taiwan, and I am very glad to have received that knowledge prior to departure. Had I not, I would have simply looked like another globally unconscious American. Another student commented, The classes have helped tremendously. The meetings have helped to ease my fears about the trip, have answered many of my questions, and have helped me to get to know the others going to Taiwan with me. As evidenced by these remarks, the students gained knowledge of the host country as well as increased their intercultural competence during the pre-departure course work.
Once the students arrived in the country, they attended approximately thirty hours of in-class instruction that focused on Taiwanese culture and society as well as basic Mandarin Chinese. The study abroad experience included a two-day group field trip to historical regions of the country, which complemented in-class instruction. En route to these field trips, the same three students were interviewed individually to gain a more in-depth understanding of their experiences. When asked what they had learned outside the classroom in Taiwan, one student observed, Collectivism is more apparent in the older generation. I feel the younger generation is not as collectivist. Another student discussed the following challenges: I really don't identify with the American culture. ... The rest of the world lives in a difficult way, so I think it is unethical for me to live so ridiculously, so luxuriously. And I like it here more. By reflecting on information concerning the Taiwanese culturefor example, collectivismit is evident that the student comments reflect an increase in intercultural competence.
Lastly, students were required to openly reflect on their experiences abroad in a final journal assignment, which was due shortly after they returned to the United States. The three students also answered ten follow-up questions concerning their experiences. One student who stated in her first questionnaire that she would be very anxious the first few days of the trip, because she was far from home, later stated, Everything exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed all the new things I tried such as food, riding the MRT, and finally being able to visit Asia. Another student, who answered in the first questionnaire that she thought her biggest challenge during the experience would be the jet lag, identified instead that her biggest challenge was coming to terms with my cultural identity. When I returned, as has happened when I've returned from abroad before, I suddenly remembered that America is my homeland, and this is the culture I was raised in and influenced my development. This made me a little uncomfortable. When asked if they would return to Taiwan, all three students confirmed that they would enjoy spending time in the country again. In fact, after just three months back in the United States, one student returned to Taiwan and is currently teaching English in the Taipei area.
University students need to take advantage of international experiences such as study abroad to compete in the increasingly global society in which they live. In the first semester or two, a student may not know about study abroad; therefore, it is essential that academic advisers take the opportunity to encourage students to become involved in study abroad opportunities and refer them to the appropriate resources available on individual campuses. One of the positive outcomes of student participation in study abroad programs is that their intercultural competence can be enhanced. By reviewing the above comments from the USC students, it is evident that opportunities like the university's Modern Taiwanese Culture and Society study abroad program are crucial opportunities for students to develop intercultural competence skills. It is also necessary to recognize that the skills are diverse and multifaceted for each student, yet are essential for living in today's global society.