As a junior in college, Sarah Angulo spent a semester studying at a university in Toledo, Spain. She liked it there so much that she didn’t want to go home. Fortunately for her, the university where she was studying gave her a job for the summer so she could stay a few extra months.
In comparing notes with her college friends, Angulo found that all of them who studied abroad had the same kind of transformative experience. And a few years after graduation, her friends who didn’t study abroad wished they had.
When it came time to do research for her Ph.D. thesis, Angulo decided to combine her two loves – psychology and study abroad.
“I wanted to learn if the reports of change among students studying abroad were anecdotal or if they were the norm,” said Angulo, who has been teaching psychology at Southwestern since spring 2010. “Everyone knows that students who study abroad have fun, but are they really changing and growing as people?”
Sure enough, her research found that change was the norm.
Angulo’s research for her Ph.D. thesis at The University of Texas at Austin was recently published in a book titled Trading Cultures, Transforming Lives: Positive Change During Study Abroad.
Angulo conducted her research by asking UT students who were studying abroad to complete an online questionnaire before they left the United States and three times during their semester abroad: at two weeks, eight weeks and 12 weeks. A group of UT students who had not yet studied abroad served as a control group for the study.
Students in each group were compared on variables such as personal growth, personal change, life satisfaction and worldliness. Angulo found that personal growth and personal change seemed to be “fairly widespread and pronounced” after students had been abroad for 12 weeks. Students who studied abroad also were “significantly higher” in life satisfaction after their study-abroad experience.
Angulo was particularly interested in trying to find out whether students’ study-abroad experience changed them more if they had certain living arrangements and whether “situational variables” such as whether they studied in an English-speaking country or a non-English speaking country affected their study-abroad experience.
Angulo found that students who lived with a host family had higher identification with the host country than students who lived with other Americans and also became less ethnocentric over time. Students who lived with host families also were more likely to eat food from the host country, have more conversations with people from the host country and speak more in the language of the host country. Having stayed with two different host families in Spain, Angulo said all these findings correlated with her own experience.
However, she found that students living with Americans had just as much personal growth and personal change during their study-abroad experience as those who stayed with host families.
“This just underscores one of my favorite sayings about studying abroad, which is that there’s no wrong way to do it,” she said.
Angulo also found that language competence did not have an effect on students’ study-abroad experiences. Students who were not competent in a foreign language grew just as much as students who were fluent in a foreign language.
“People confuse language and culture,” Angulo said. “Even if students go to a country where they speak the same language, the culture can be very different.”
Angulo stressed that students should not rule out studying in a country just because they don’t know the language. “There are many programs in other countries that are designed for students who don’t know the language – for example, you can go to Rome to study architecture without knowing Italian,” she said.
While Angulo was not surprised that study abroad changed students, she was surprised by the degree of change. “No other life experience changes people that much over a three-month period,” she said.
In fact, she found that students changed after just two weeks abroad – a fact that has major implications for students worried about financing a full semester abroad.
“If they can’t go abroad for a whole semester, they can still reap the benefits of study abroad through a shorter program,” she said.
Since completing her research, Angulo has become even more of an advocate for students to study abroad. She shares her research with the students in her introductory psychology class and encourages them to think about what they need to do in order to be able to study abroad.
“At least I feel I’ve planted the seed,” she said, noting that Congress wants to more than triple the number of U.S. students studying abroad by 2015.
On Feb. 16, Angulo will give a talk to Southwestern faculty members about her research findings. The talk will begin at 4 p.m. in the Connie McNab Room of the McCombs Campus Center. In the future, she hopes to do more research to see if factors such as gender, ethnicity, study abroad program and country of study lead to different levels and types of identity change.