Measuring the Benefits of Studying Abroad

February 4, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Ask Briana Mingus about the semester she spent in London in 2012, and she’ll say what a lot of Elmhurst students say about their time abroad: that it was one of the great experiences of her life.

But as a student worker in the College’s International Education program whose job includes assessing how students learn from experiences in other countries, she will also admit that her answer isn’t quite good enough.

“We want to delve a little deeper,” says Mingus, a senior political science major from Moweaqua, Illinois. “We hear so often that it was a great experience, and that’s always good to hear, but we want to know why it was so great. It’s different for every student.”

To help answer that question, Elmhurst’s International Education program, part of the Center for Professional Excellence, has been asking students to get specific about their studies abroad. The aim of the multiyear effort is to learn more precisely how studying abroad benefits students. So students are asked to write essays and submit photographic journals based on their overseas experiences. They also complete a standardized assessment called the Global Perspective Inventory that seeks to measure students’ cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal development. Taken together, these assessment tools translate student experiences into data that reflect the role studying abroad plays in students’ growth.

“We get lots of anecdotal evidence about the impact of studying abroad, but this gives us another, objective way of assessing,” said Wally Lagerwey, Elmhurst’s director of international education. “This allows us to point to concrete data that indicate exactly how students learn and what they learn.” Such tangible data, he said, helps convince students of the benefits of studying abroad. It also helps build support for international education.

Mingus has been assisting Lagerwey and Alice Niziolek, associate director of international education, on the student-assessment project. She presented some of the results of the research at the national conference of Alpha Mu Gamma, the foreign-language honor society, at Elmhurst in September. Among the findings: Students who completed the Global Perspective Inventory both before and after studying abroad improved their scores in several areas having to do with social interactions and self-understanding. Student essays were revealing, too. Mingus said that of 159 students who submitted essays between 2006 and 2012, 85 percent mentioned that they gained insights into other cultures, and 65 percent touched on relationships forged during their time abroad.

The finding that students learn from their time abroad came as no surprise to Mingus. Her own experience in London has turned her into a determined advocate for international study. While studying in London through an Arcadia University Abroad program, Mingus worked as an intern in the office of Roberta Blackman Woods, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament representing the northern city of Durham. Mingus’s internship duties included responding to correspondence from constituents and other administrative and research projects. She also found time to attend Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly spectacle in which the opposing Parliamentary parties engage in often-heated verbal battle.

She called her internship “just perfect for someone interested in international politics.” After graduation, Mingus will serve in the Peace Corps, possibly in Cameroon, where she would work on health education projects. She hopes eventually to attend law school and is interested in focusing on international law.

In London, Mingus learned first-hand that studying in another country can broaden a student’s global perspective. “London is a true global melting pot,” she said. “For someone like me from a small town in Illinois, it was fantastic to find myself among all these millions of people from all over the world. I got to see an amazing culture and to see what kinds of problems citizens there are facing and how they are trying to solve them.”

Part of Mingus’s job in the CPE includes spreading the word about the benefits of studying abroad. She visits First-Year Seminar classes to talk about international opportunities and hosts monthly study-abroad workshops for students.

Lagerwey said Mingus’s role as a study-abroad ambassador is an important one.

“As a student, she has real credibility with other students,” he said. “She has a connection with other students when it comes to their concerns and questions because she has been there.”

Mingus tells students that studying abroad may be more affordable than they think and encourages them to explore the possibilities. She advises students to study abroad for a full semester, if possible, in part because semester-long experiences are often easier to finance than January Term or summer trips. “And you will get a fuller cultural experience,” she says. “I tell them to start planning and start saving.”

Her hope is that every Elmhurst student can have the kind of study-abroad experience she had.

“I’m so passionate about studying abroad,” she said. “It was a great experience for me, and I think every student should do it.”

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