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Study abroad proven to boost personal development

Meeting and interacting with new people when studying abroad has been proven to improve social development

We talk a lot about how studying in another country improves one’s self-confidence, social skills and prospects as a graduate – and now there is actual proof according to a new study.

Dr Julia Zimmermann and Dr Franz Neyer of Friedrich-Schiller-University at Jena looked at a sample of a thousand German students and determined that their time studying abroad – or ‘sojourning’ as is the popular phrase in the country – helped their personal development.

Dr Zimmermann granted us an interview, so we could find out more about this fascinating study. She emphasised the role that the social upshift which accompanies study abroad (or ‘international mobility’) had in this accelerated personal development. While international students must face some substantial challenges (having ‘to come square with a larger geographical distance from familiar acquaintances while being simultaneously confronted with the challenge to establish and maintain new social relationships within a foreign and intercultural context), it was found to be an ultimately worthwhile endeavor.

As for when these benefits would reveal themselves, changes in surroundings are almost guaranteed in one’s lifetime. While this may include travelling abroad as a tourist (‘intranational geographical mobility’), students may be more interested in Zimmermann’s own example of the ‘start of professional life’. Moving to a new location for one’s first job out of university or college can be an added stress; but this study suggests that when one is already used to new environments from ‘sojourning’ abroad, it is not so much an issue.

That is to say that studying in another country is not the only route to improving one’s personal development; for example, joining extracurricular groups within your own country would also have a positive effect, though likely on a much smaller scale. When asked what she would say to those students considering sojourning abroad as part of their studies, Zimmermann relays not scientific rhetoric or findings, but her own first-hand experience: ‘Being an alumni exchange-student myself I would unscientifically add: do it! From my personal point of view it is a great chance to gain many new experiences that extend far beyond language expertise or professional qualifications.’

However, do students continue to develop or mature as quickly once they return home? While one can explore new places and practice initiating contact with strangers, is it worth it if a student regresses once they return home (in some cases, to the family home)? ‘It is yet to be seen if this maturation process continues (once students have returned home’, said Zimmermann, though she was open to this being an excellent launching point for future research.

The study, entitled ‘Do We Become a Different Person When Hitting the Road? Personality Development of Sojourners’ was conducted online through questionnaires measuring students’ openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability before, during and after their time abroad. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2013.

Dr. Julia Zimmermann is a research fellow at the department of personality psychology and psychological assessment at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. 

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Meeting and interacting with new people when studying abroad has been proven to improve social development

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.