A University of Minnesota study concludes the length of time students spent studying abroad had no notable impact on their amount of global engagement in the future.
“There was a significant correlation between duration of study abroad and global engagement, but the size effect was much smaller than we anticipated,” Gerald Fry, a UM professor of international-development education, said. “What this means is that well-designed, short-term programs can have considerable impact if carefully designed to optimize culture and language learning.”
The study loosely defined global engagement as increased domestic and international civic commitment, social entrepreneurship and participation in volunteerism and philanthropy.
The study was particularly important to inform skeptics of short-term programs who believe students spend the majority of their time with other Americans and are left with a window of opportunity too small to become fully engaged in the culture.
Fry and R. Michael Paige, a UM-Twin Cities professor of international and intercultural education, surveyed more than 6,000 former alumni over five decades from 20 diverse universities that had participated in a study abroad program.
Though the data showed no significant difference in global engagement among students who studied for a wide spectrum of time frames, the majority reported their global engagement stemmed from their experience abroad, Fry said.
Fry added that while time showed little effect on global engagement, studying abroad for longer periods can be beneficial primarily in perfecting language skills.
“We have study abroad ranging three weeks to a year, and especially when it comes to language, a longer time spent in the country definitely helps a lot,” Jenni Young, peer advisor in the study abroad office at the University of Wisconsin, said.
Students also reported that studying abroad was the most influential of their undergraduate experiences, more so than course work and faculty interaction.
“As a faculty member, I find that a bit troubling,” Fry said. “Though for my own (college) experience, I would rate my contact with faculty as about a one and study abroad as a nine, in terms of impactful experiences.”
Young agreed her experience abroad has been the most influential part of her collegiate career thus far.
“It gives you experience in different cultures and broadens your mind,” Young said. “It also makes you much more marketable if you want to go into a field that is involved internationally, and its also a really great way to meet people, both … students from the U.S. or students internationally.”
About 20 percent of the surveyed students also reported studying abroad more than once added to their sense of global engagement, according to Fry.
Young said she personally felt the effect studying abroad had on her interest in becoming more globally engaged, adding she plans to attend graduate school abroad in the future.
“Study abroad for most is a highly transformative, powerful experience that changes the way they see the world and often affects their major life choices related to education and career,” Fry said.