Repositioning Study Abroad as a Rite of Passage: Impact, Implications, and Implementation

Repositioning Study Abroad as a Rite of Passage: Impact, Implications, and Implementation

David Starr-Glass (University of New York in Prague, Czech Republic)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0169-5.ch004
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Study abroad can be an exhilarating and transformative experience literally moving students to a place where globalization, internationalization, and cultural awareness are direct experiences, not simply classroom abstractions. Study abroad provides multiple social and learning benefits for students, but in addition it also adds to the vibrancy of their colleges. However, despite these benefits, study abroad still remains a missed opportunity for most US student and their institutions. This chapter advocates that study abroad should be recognized and celebrated as an important rite of passage in undergraduate life. Thus reconceptualized, students might place renewed value on the study abroad experience and colleges might be able to promote such initiatives more effectively. The chapter explores the dynamics of rites of passage, the urgent need for significant rites of passage in undergraduate life, and how study abroad experiences can be strategically repositioned to benefit both students and their colleges.
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In considering the impact of study abroad on the self-efficacy of participants, Millstein (2005) notes that many students ‘describe a transformation in their very sense of self, both in how they experience their own cultures and in how they view their life paths…. an increased sense of empowerment, an enriched sense of belief in their own capabilities’ (p. 218). Likewise, after an extensive study of the study abroad experience, Salisbury (2011) concluded that ‘studying abroad significantly affects the positive development of intercultural competence’ and that this positive development was noticeable for all study abroad participants irrespective of ‘gender, race, SES [socio-economic status], institutional type, pre-college tested academic preparation, pretest score, or college experiences’ (p. 92).

Those who have themselves studied abroad are among the first to acknowledge their increased ‘acceptance of difference in others, tolerance of ambiguity, self-awareness, confidence in meeting new people, and greater independence and self-confidence’ (American Institute for Foreign Study, 2013, p. 13). Study abroad participants also acknowledge that they have been helped to ‘develop several important employment-related skills (e.g., intercultural competence, global awareness, foreign language skills) to which they may have been less exposed [on domestic campuses]’ (Di Pietro, 2013, p. 18). These are the personal and student-based responses to study abroad, but there is also a national policy issue at stake. Considering the place of the United States in the global community, and the ability of its college graduates to compete at the international level, the Lincoln Commission (2005) emphasized that in a rapidly changing world ‘the graduates who prosper… will be those who leave school with an appreciation of global issues and cultures and an introduction to the new ways of the world’ (p. 6). It is clear that study abroad presents exceptionally positive benefits and significant transformative possibilities for students, their institutions of learning, and indeed for their countries; nevertheless, study abroad is not unproblematic.

This chapter reconsiders study abroad from a different perspective, a perspective that centers on its transformative impact on those involved. In part, the chapter is based on the present author’s experience with international initiatives within the context of US Higher Education (HE). The first section provides background by considering the contemporary conceptualization of study abroad with a focus on the US. To provide international readers with a frame of reference, this section includes a brief overview of the HE context in the US and further explores the benefits of study abroad.

The second section considers the voids, spaces, and gaps that exist in undergraduate education, especially for those who are studying business administration. It explores efforts to make sense of these lacunae and suggests that the study abroad experience can provide an important way of filling them and of being recognized as legitimate rite of passage by undergraduates. It also advocates that study abroad should be repositioned – away from a pleasant but peripheral event in the student’s life, to one that is recognized and valued as an authentic ‘coming of age’ experience. Recommendations and suggestions for institutional policies and educational practice are also provided.

The third section considers research initiatives that might further our understanding of study abroad and of how such experiences connect to higher status and social standing for students. The final section summarizes the key issues presented in the chapter and draws together several conclusions that will hopefully be of value to the reader and which may promote richer, more valued, and more meaningful studies abroad experiences in the future.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Global Mindset: The informed and expansive appreciation of the inherent diversity and culturally-mediated forces that characterize international markets, organizations, and strategies. A global mindset allows participants in international contexts to move beyond the limits of their pre-existing behavior and ethnocentric thinking and to function effectively with the difference and diversity that they encounter.

Graduate Employability: The ability of someone who has successfully completed HE to enter, remain, and advance in the labor force. Employability can be understood from the perspective of the potential employee or of the prospective employer. From the graduate candidate’s perspective, employability is a function of the quality and relevancy of the knowledge, skills, and competencies possessed and brought to the relevant labor market. From the employer’s perspective, employability is a function of perceived attributes, job-fit, and continuing demand for the work-related knowledge, skills, and competencies presented by the graduate candidate.

Socio-Economic Status (SES): A construct that is conditional in mature and ascribed to individuals by an observer. The construct is used to measure and to make comparisons about an individual’s relative position (or status) in terms of economic, social, and influential power within a larger social grouping. A characteristic of SES is that it is often defined by researchers in somewhat fluid and creative ways, depending on the nature, context, and intent of their studies. As such, it may include dimension such as occupation, ethnicity, and access to healthcare, labor markets, and education. Normally, three levels of SES are recognized: low, moderate (medium), and high.

Rites of Passage: A socially constructed and recognized ritual that marks the transition of an individual from one social status to another in the course of his or her life. The transition is usually marked by three distinct and progressive periods: (a) separation or ‘dissociation’ from the existing social roles and status; (b) a liminal phase in which there is no imposition of a defined social role or structure; and (c) the reintegration or ‘aggregation’ of the individual with his or her new social status into the group.

Study Abroad Experience: An example of outbound student mobility in which learners, enrolled in HE programs, spend part of their degree program in formal credit-bearing learning programs, study exchanges, or work placements in countries of which they are not nationals. Within the US educational system, study abroad is predominantly a short-term experience, with the large majority lasting for less than eight weeks.

Higher Education (HE): The system of postsecondary institutions that provides learning opportunities for those who wish to obtain academic degrees and professional qualifications. In the US, the system includes state-sponsored (‘public’) two-year colleges (‘community colleges’), four-year colleges, and state research universities. This pattern is also replicated in the private and for-profit HE sectors. HE in the US is not coordinated at a national or federal level. The definition of HE employed in this chapter does not include postsecondary institutions of a vocational nature, which are invariably organized on a private or for-profit basis.

Globalization: The ongoing world-wide trend towards increased economic, financial, and trade integration across national boundaries. Globalization (a) recognizes the need for a relaxation of exclusively nation-centered and self-serving policies and perspectives; (b) responds to a reconsideration of a world economy that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent; and (c) promotes the unimpeded flow of labor, goods, and services in ways that enhance the growth and development of the global community without unduly harming individual members of that community.

Liminality: A transitory period in which an individual senses that he or she is neither subject to the social or cultural rules of the previous state, nor to the rules of the future state. It is a ‘neither here nor there’ or a ‘betwixt and between’ phase, often associated with ritual or locational displacement. Liminality is a state of fluidity and ambiguity, and it often prompts a critical re-evaluation of behavior, status, and identity. It is also known as a threshold state (Latin limen = threshold: the space between two rooms which is not part of either).

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