Impact is the Point in Study Abroad

December 12, 2009 at 3:44 PM

Impact is the Point in Study Abroad


Dawn Anderson and Jim Stellar


Dawn Anderson started out in my former Office when I was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University where we were developing study abroad options for our students interested in experiential education. She ended up directing that study abroad office and then moved to do the same thing University-wide when the program appropriately moved to the Provost’s Office.  Now she has left

Northeastern (like me) and we are beginning to think together about the key features that impacted the student (or students learning).  What follows is her 1st piece in this blog.


After directing a study abroad program for a number of years, one of the most fascinating observations each term is the dramatic transformations students experience as a result of briefly living abroad.  Many times they return much more confident in their abilities, self-possessed and aware. There is a calmness that blankets them as they transition to life back on campus, finalizing re-entry requirements of the program and reintegrating into the life they left while beginning a new term.  A common evaluation response is that their participation in the programs was one of the most valuable learning experiences so far as an undergraduate student.


Understandably, many study abroad applicants are eager and anxious about living abroad.  It is the first time that many of them will live in another country, away from family and friends and away from their comfort zones.  Some have absorbed their families’ anxiety about having limited connections but the rebellious stage encourages them to push through it.  Some are determined to go no matter what and others are following friends abroad and/or satisfying requirements.  All will leave their comfort zones and that, I believe, is at the root of the transformation.


Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development.  People can improve and/or develop new skills with appropriate guidance.  Jeff Howard of The Efficacy Institute expanded the concept to Zone of Development (ZOD), where people experience situations that stretch beyond their comfort zones but not too far.  Staying in the comfort zone, he calls Zone of Accepted Practice (ZAP), is familiar territory.  It offers little to no challenge that serves as a safety net for those who fear failure and lacks the tension (new situation that clashes against current perceptions) that must exist to encourage personal evolution.  If not careful, people can exist in the ZAP mode limiting their options in a time of change and evolving technologies.  I believe that study abroad informs students of their areas of ZAP and exposes them to a regular routine of challenging this tendency to rely on it.  It is difficult to see when they are home submerged in their ZAP because even when they face challenges, there are enough distractions making it easier to compartmentalize, set aside, avoid dealing with that issue.  But when students are abroad, they are more aware than ever of their vulnerability and are often forced to deal with the realities of that state.  It can be a matter of survival as they are not around family and friends to lean on or absorb/share some of the sting of a, for example, potentially traumatic experience.

Often students return to campus, after successfully navigating a different culture and learning a new language, very confident that they can handle problems back at their home campuses.  Their reactions to challenges with say, registration, are not as intense because they’ve learned that problems will come and can be resolved with time, diplomacy and patience.  They learn to approach challenges empathetically, because they spent a semester or two viewing the world through foreign eyes.


As international educators, we are essentially preparing students for controlled chaos.  We know their perceptions about the world and their place in it will be challenged on multiple levels.  As they begin the cultural adjustment process, a phase that starts during pre-departure, they will be challenged with things from interpreting visa requirements to familiarizing themselves with international airline rules.  Although still at home and often assisted by parents who must produce information for applications, I encourage parents to allow their child to do as much of the work as possible during the application process.  It will set the tone for what is expected of them abroad and get them use to resolving their own challenges without parental help.  What a valuable skill for today’s future leaders.


This is great, but I want to ask you to do one more thing and relate Howard’s ZOD (or Vygotsky’s zone of comfort) to the issue of minority involvement in Study abroad.  I know this issue of underrepresented groups in study abroad is something about which you have written nationally as part of a NAFSA Newsletter. Not that long ago in this blog, a student and I wrote a post called “A Black Woman Runs in Haifa”  about a shift in her perspective that occurred when she was on study abroad.

Students from “minority” communities face many cultural barriers that prevent them from even considering study abroad as a valuable educational option.  Not only do they lack role models or community support for this type of experience, they tend to be advised by trusted educators and family members with the same limited scope.  Some educators and parents will even discourage it, dismissing it as an unnecessary expense or a delay towards graduation.  This always worried me because it is the students that come from isolated or segregated communities that need the exposure most.  It is imperative that international educators understand this and factor it into their outreach initiatives.  Under-represented students perceptions about the world will be challenged on multiple levels as they are able to witness and experience first-hand, the realities that had previously been filtered through individuals whose views were shaped in a different time and by different realities. 


More importantly, while abroad, these students get to evolve in ways they could not in the United States, stretching parts of themselves beyond their comfort zones and creating the necessary tension that encourages transformation.  After arriving in their host country, for the first few weeks, many parts of themselves will be operating in the ZOD as they struggle to communicate, familiarize themselves with the new environment and local customs and get to know people they will encounter.  They will become observers again experiencing a vulnerability that is similar to a child who must rely on the more experienced for basic needs.  After a few weeks, when sights and sounds aren’t so new and the challenges of communicating subsides, their daily practices become routine and these once challenging tasks will move to the students Zone of Acceptable Practices.  Increase confidence, increase global and cultural understanding and a heightened reliance on self resources are products of study abroad which increases self efficacy and in my opinion can undo the affects of under exposure due to living in a isolated and/or segregated community.


The very concept of a ZOD (or ZAP for that matter) is an example of the operation of what we call in this blog, “other lobe” thinking.  Note how its operation is challenged not so much by talking or academic classes but by direct experience when the person is in the flow of the situation. Here is where those brain circuits activate and begin computing the meaning of experiences, some of which do go back to the classroom and facts and theories learned in the field of study.  The trick is to somehow marry these changes to what is being delivered academically so that the student has the capacity to operate on the question with both the cognitive intelligence and the emotional intelligence functions converging.  Abroad programs which do that are even stronger than ones that do not.  These kinds of programs, where both lobes of the brain are engaged have the power to transform and that power can be very significant in individuals from diverse populations where that self-confidence discussed above can be an issue.




Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university
1 Comment

One Response to “Impact is the Point in Study Abroad”

  1. Moyagaye Bedward says:

    This is a very accurate description of what occurs before and after study abroad experiences.
    I was a very anxious person before I went to Israel last January. I would often freak out and have melt downs over what I now consider to be the most minor inconveniences. Life is not so rigid for me any more. I no longer view my college career as one that prepares me for job, but for my future participation in world affairs. That may sound like the same thing but to me those two things are quite distinct. One concerns me and the lets me know that I can impact the world. I suppose that is the type of things Ivy leaguers are told; how to change the world.

    When i fist came to Queens College, my intent was to finish college and get a job (after I figured out that law school was not the right place for me). I couldnt see past the “absolute necessity” of finding a job so that I could make money and better my self. I still want to find a job and better myself, but now I feel that I have a vested interest in helping the rest of the world better them selves as well. I am applying to grad school in the fall to study political theory in hopes of making a dent in the human rights debate surrounding North Africa. I have even began to study Arabic.
    The aforemention goals surely illustrates how changed I was by my experience. I mean I can actually locate the United Arab emirates on a map, and that is to say alot for a black kid who spent half of her childhood years in growing up in the Far-Rockaway projects where the only things worse than the projects themselves is the education one’s child recieves.
    Perhaps though I had an advantage. Unlike other most other minorities who have had to “figure it out” by themselves or who were subject to the not so wise advise from relatives, I have had an amazing mentor and in addition to that, my mother was also a inspirational example to me. It was after all her hard work that brought her family out of the projects into the middle class suburbs of laurelton.

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