Study abroad makes you a better person

The Big Five personality traits, study abroad, global education

A new study of the effects of study abroad on students’ personal development finds a significant positive impact on the “Big Five” personality traits:

  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness
  • neuroticism
  • extraversion
  • openness to experience

This confirms the importance of cultivating global competence as a key component of global education to prepare students for life and work in the increasingly global 21st century. Some go even so far to say that if education in the 21st century is not global, it is not education at all.

Do We Become a Different Person When Hitting the Road? Personality Development of Sojourners,’ has just been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Julia Zimmermann and Franz Neyer, two psychologists at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany. This study is part of the Personality Development of Sojourners (PEDES) project, the most comprehensive study of the effects of study abroad to date.

In the press release, ‘Mobile at University – Fit for Life: Psychologists proof positive “side effects” of studying abroad,’ the researchers highlight key findings:

To find one’s way in a foreign country is an important life experience. Such experiences have influence on the personality development of young adults.

People who integrate successfully into a different culture may find it easier to cope with new situations and master challenges. However, it is not imperative to go abroad to gain these experiences. But those who hit the road clearly benefit from the sojourning experience.

These conclusions corroborate other recent research in cultural neuroscience finding that study abroad improves pattern recognition.

It also confirms what another recent study has found. To gain these benefits, students do not have to go abroad. Regular interaction with international students also significantly develops key skills of domestic students.

This finding is all the more important now as study abroad is likely to grow more slowly for at least some time. Many argue that it is therefore high time to rethink and redo global education by first globalizing education and then investing resources to provide experiences that effectively globalize students. This can be achieved in a number of different ways, but some research suggests that regular informal encounters with international students may have the deepest and most lasting impact. In sum, while well-designed study abroad is probably the best way to globalize students, it is but one approach and needs to be more systematically integrated with other ways of globalizing students on campus, which in turn will only grow in importance for the foreseeable future.

Thus, at its best, global learning becomes transformative learning, which changes the way we relate to ourselves, others and the world. This is just the kind of transformation we urgently need to be able to respond effectively to mounting global challenges.

Finally, we have known for a long time that more is better: The longer students study abroad, the more significant and lasting the benefits are in terms of language, academics, intercultural competence, personal development, and career choices. Study abroad does indeed change lives.

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