Monday, 28 February 2011

Conceptualising the Student Experience

Study Abroad Style Diary: 5 Lessons from My First Month – College Fashion

This post from College Fashion came up on a Google search for study abroad images, and even though fashion is seemingly unrelated to my research, the blogger does a lovely job of summing up the student experience. Coincidentally, that's exactly what I'm trying to do at the moment (albeit from a less fashion-oriented point of view).

My latest project (or "section of the final dissertation", if you want to make it sound ambitious) is the task of 'conceptualising the student experience'.
When I was going through the literature at the beginning, I noticed that there was a real need to bring it all together--to unite the various threads of the student experience into a single concept that could be analysed by my research project. Conceptualising is about deriving meaning--what does the student experience mean? What's the point of looking at it? The relevant lit includes everything from the education research on study abroad, to anecdotes from former grantees scattered throughout various disciplines of lit, to the psychological effects of intercultural behaviour. It's proven to be very tricky, and it's turning into a very important part of the whole project.

So far, I've created an outline of the various chronological stages in the 'student experience,' and written a bit on each part of the process. Looking at the previous research & anecdotes, students tend to go through 6 key stages:
1) Decision to apply
--Self-explanatory: a student decides to study abroad. Motivations to do this might include academic/career goals, learning a foreign language (obviously not the case for US-UK, but true for the majority of US students going abroad), or simply the desire to live and study in another country for the fun of it. For Fulbrighters, there's the added motivation of resume/CV-building--many Fulbrighters cite the brand as a reason to apply in the first place.
2) Selection
--In the case of Fulbright, this is a really interesting section. It's not just a matter of filling out a form or writing an essay--there are a lot of behind-the-scenes IR factors that influence the selection process. For instance, students applying to go to certain countries are advised not to propose political research projects. The numbers come in to this section, with application data and acceptance rates, as well as the most popular destinations over time.
3) Arrival
--This is where the psychology literature becomes useful. Intercultural communication theories, particularly regarding culture shock, provide some insight into the behaviour of study abroad participants, and how this might affect their overall experiences.
4) Midpoint
--This section is mostly informed by the education literature on study abroad, although psych continues to play a role at this stage, too. The education literature does an excellent job of explaining just what it is that study abroad students actually do, both in their academic and personal lives.
5) Departure
--The psych concept of 're-entry shock' will be briefly described here, as well as the anecdotal evidence from Fulbright alums talking about their mixed emotions upon leaving. After being in this host country for a year, it really does become a 'second home,' and many students report a bittersweet re-entry experience.
6) Reflection
--This section will mostly be made up of the anecdotal evidence from Fulbrighter essays. I'm looking at the long-term impacts, observed by alumni reflecting on the experience years afterwards. This is actually the most relevant in terms of public diplomacy--it's a long-term strategy, so it makes the most sense to look at the long-term effects.

I think that mostly sums it up...So far I'm at 3,200 words, which is miles ahead of my usual word count 5 days before the due date. Just a few more coffees and I'll be happy with it.

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