Our project team used a literature review to guide the development of our interview and research questions. We then conducted 20 interviews and collected 56 survey responses, which we used to inform the following findings and recommendations.
Affirming Their Academic and Career Goals: whether it is shifting their interests or confirming their passions, the student's time abroad was often viewed as an important experience in affirming their goals.
Enhanced Communication and Adaptability: were important for the students in order to respect the local culture, as well as, keeping them safe when navigating different social norms (e.g. disclosure of sexual orientation)
The Challenge of Communicating Hard and Soft Skills: while students could communicate their soft skills gained, they had difficulty expressing their value or application in terms of employability. Students who participated in work, volunteer, or research placements had an easier time articulating hard skills gained while abroad.
A Deeper Connection to Cultural Identity and Canadian Identity: several BIPOC students enjoyed learning more about their racial or cultural background. Students also reported a heightened sense of their Canadian identity.
Identity and Issues of Micro-aggressions, Harassment, and Stereotypes: female students reported safety concerns and one BIPOC student noted unwanted flirtation due to her gender and ethnicity. Members of the LGBTQ2S+ community expressed concerns about disclosing their sexual orientation or having their identity dismissed.
Overcoming Isolation, Seeking Connection and Community: members of underrepresented groups faced discrimination and isolation, and therefore, sought out individuals and communities with similar backgrounds.
Navigating White Privilege: some students reported being viewed in a higher regard based on their skin colour, which made them question their western privilege.
Conflicting Emotions: between the excitement to be reunited with family and friends, not wanting to leave the positive elements of their international experience, their need to come back due to a lack of money or homesickness, and the sense of loss and disconnect once back, students expressed a wide range of emotions during their re-entry experience.
Transition Period: many students had limited time to transition to the next phase of their life (e.g. work, school, or more travel), which left little time for reflection on their experience.
Strong Student Desire for Re-entry Programming: to help navigate the conflicting emotions, readjustment period, and mental health concerns, students saw the importance of having a re-entry program available.
A Call for Connection, Check-Ins, and Support: students were looking for group connections and a peer community to share their experiences. They also expressed interest in counseling services, check-ins, and further administrative support.
Addressing Mental Health, Career Advising, and a Call for Flexible Programming: asynchronous, and extended access to re-entry supports is needed to allow students to access them when needed. Students were also looking for a variety of activities (e.g. written, group debrief, skills development, interactive, etc.) and the option to remain anonymous if desired.
1.0 - Implications for Re-entry Programming
Underrepresented groups of students actively sought out shared social circles and inclusive spaces both during and after their international experience. Students who identified as Black, Asian, and as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, expressed an interest in connecting with people of similar backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging and help overcome issues of isolation.
With the increasing popularity of field schools, professors should be aware of group dynamics and intentionally create inclusive spaces so that students who may be underrepresented feel a greater sense of acceptance.
As students often reported that their family and friends could not relate to their experience, re-entry programming should create a space for students to connect and validate their experience amongst peers of common identity and cultural background.
The re-entry phase is often a transient period for students as they experience, in many cases, a deep sense of loss, disorientation, disconnect and struggle to readjust to life back home. Re-entry programming should be delivered in a flexible manner that helps students articulate their emotions and feelings, reflect on how their identity impacted their experience, and reflect on how their intercultural skills translate to the workplace. Student feedback also suggests that re-entry programming should include mental health support, credit transfer support, and check-in supports to allow students to talk about their experience.
While students could articulate examples of how they gained specific skills (such as communication and adaptability), they had difficulty expressing the value or application of their international experience. Students struggle to make the link with their experience and identifying the professional skills they acquired that will be crucial to their transition to the workforce. This suggests a beneficial focus area for re-entry supports to help students reflect on and identify the transferrable employability skills gained through their international learning experience.
2.0 - Implications for Pre-departure
International offices should emphasize the interplay of identity and safety and how this is impacted within different cultural contexts. Students who participate in an outbound mobility program should have training that prepares them to reflect on their identity and anticipate how they may have to navigate issues of privilege, stereotypes, harassment, and microaggressions, for example.
Students should also be equipped with learning activities that help them to contemplate how they might navigate sensitive issues and what the implications may be in a different cultural context. Emphasis should also be placed on developing strong communication and adaptability skills to navigate both the local context and more complex social norms where implications for student safety are at play.
This research highlights the need to develop pre-departure training opportunities that offer tangible help and a community of support to deal with discriminatory issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and feelings of isolation.
3.0 Implications for Promotion
Promoting study abroad as a way of exploring identity may appeal to many students. For example, LGBTQ2S+ students may be drawn to programs that give them a comfortable opportunity to understand sexual identity in a different cultural context. Promoting programs with diverse student identities in mind could help traditionally underrepresented students see themselves participating in international programs.