Branching Out: Analyzing the Study Abroad Program Experiences of QF’s Students

Special Focus : Culture and Identity: What Makes Us Human
Life Skills May 21, 2019

This was originally published in Qatar Foundation

Universities have started to play a greater role in equipping students with the mindset needed to thrive in a global economy. These efforts include promoting values associated with globalization, such as global citizenship and intercultural understanding. One of the primary methods for this approach is the study abroad program, typically offered at the undergraduate level.

However, while existing literature addresses the experiences of US students at homegrown Middle East universities, and vice-versa, reports on the impact of study abroad programs on students from Middle Eastern branch campuses are almost non-existent.

This situation creates a knowledge gap, because branch campuses of US universities, such as those at Qatar Foundation’s (QF’s) Education City, generally recreate the ambience of their institution’s main campus, making the study abroad experience of students markedly different from their counterparts in local Middle Eastern universities.

As an alumna of Georgetown University in Qatar, a QF partner university, during my four years in college I often encountered students retrospectively engaging with the experiences and memories that stayed with them for months, and sometimes years, after their return from a study abroad program in the US. While many of them are unable to comprehend the magnitude of the transformation they’ve undergone, these changes tend to be more visible to their college friends who did not have the opportunity to participate in similar programs. As someone of the latter category, I wanted to refine my perception of these changes from mere before-and-after comparisons of their identity to an academic study of such behavioral patterns, with proper methodological grounding.

That led me to work with professors from my Master’s program at Columbia University in the US to develop the scope of this research. To analyze the nuances of the study abroad experience, I gathered and analyzed data from 10 qualitative interviews, conducted mostly with students from QF’s partner universities, to assess their learning outcomes with regard to global citizenship, intercultural communication, and personal growth. My interview participants included male and female students aged from 20–24, whose trips varied in length and ranged from three weeks to seven months in destinations such as Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York.

Global citizenship
In general, students told me that they felt being in vibrant cities in the US enabled them to become more involved in civic engagement opportunities outside campus. This allowed them to demonstrate increased global citizenship, one of the main learning outcomes mentioned in study abroad literature.

However, students’ level of civic engagement was largely influenced by the semester in which they had studied abroad and the city they were based in. Two participants studied in Pittsburgh and found the city to be calmer and less vibrant and diverse than they had anticipated. Alternatively, four participants who studied abroad in the spring semester noticed fewer opportunities to be active on campus and in the city. This was because the cold weather and snow limited the number of events and activities happening around them — a finding that illustrates the impact of the weather, and the choice of semester for studying abroad, on the resulting level of civic engagement.

Intercultural communication
Prior to studying abroad, all participants mentioned that the US and its people did not seem very ‘foreign’ to them because of their interactions with American students, expats, and professors on their branch campus. In a sense, they felt they were already ‘socialized’ into an American environment in their branch campus.

However, being accustomed to American culture did not eliminate fears related to integration and social adjustment. For the most part, students were worried about not being accepted in the US because of their background and religion.

After reflecting on their study abroad experiences, all 10 participants said they had positive interactions with people in the US and good experiences in the country overall, highlighting the power of intercultural communication. Six participants mentioned that they did not face any racism and enjoyed their time in the US, but did not feel their study abroad experience had brought them closer to Americans or the local student population.

Therefore, while people in the US appeared very polite and friendly, the students realized that the Americans they had encountered in the Middle East differed from the Americans they met in the US. Instead, during their time in the US, they got closer to fellow study abroad students from various parts of the world. Such testimonies highlight that intercultural communication was mostly limited to like-minded, international students.

Personal growth
For the most part, participants had varying notions of what constitutes personal growth but, on the whole, it seemed that some gained confidence from doing well in classes and were pleased with the variety of courses offered. However, most felt under-challenged, and that classes on the main campus lacked the diversity they saw in their branch campus. This meant they felt that their personal growth primarily happened outside the classroom, or from a combination of classroom learnings and experiences outside the classroom.

While reflecting on their views of the main campus after their study abroad, all participants said that they were expecting classes to be tougher and more academically rigorous than they actually were. They compared the rigorousness to their branch campuses, stating that courses at Education City tended to be a lot more demanding.

Some participants expressed a lack of diversity in classroom conversations. In particular, four participants reported having less productive classroom conversations on the main campus than the branch campuses, highlighting the diversity of students within QF partner universities and how this translates to classroom dialogues. This finding illuminates a different kind of personal growth; one that enabled participants to be more aware of their identity as an international student, and their study abroad institution’s identity as a branch campus. It also highlighted an overall perception of American students as homogenous.

Collectively, these findings suggest several things. First, the experiences of students on branch campuses in some ways generally resemble the experiences of students studying abroad, in the sense that studying abroad changes a student’s prior perception of an institution, city, people, and country.

However, in many other ways, there is a stark contrast between their experiences and those of other students studying abroad, not least because these students are already socialized into the culture and education system of their ‘home’ university. Scholars and researchers of globalization, cosmopolitan education, and transnational cross-cultural exchange should pay attention to these nuances, because places like Education City are enabling new patterns of global flow and forging new possibilities of belonging in the modern age.