Intercultural Competence Development in US Undergraduates: A Comparison of Three Study Abroad Program Models in Spain

Jayme Scally
University of York
January 2017

In study abroad it is generally assumed that students will develop intercultural competencies (ICC) in the affective, cognitive, and behavioral domains. These sojourns occur in increasingly varied program types as universities seek to expand opportunities to diverse student types. With this proliferation it is vital to have empirical evidence to support calls for specific program structures to facilitate enhanced ICC development; presently very little research comparing different program types exists.

This study begins to fill that gap through a comparison of US undergraduate students’ perceptions of their ICC development while studying in Spain in one of three model types, specifically American (Island), Third Party (Hybrid), and Direct Enrollment. This is done employing Deardorff’s Model of Intercultural Competence, which includes a focus on attitude, knowledge, and behavior, with an additional fourth focus of awareness, added to the model for the purposes and context of this study. Data were collected through a qualitatively driven mixed-methods design utilizing pre and post questionnaires modeled on Freed’s Language Contact Profile and extended with interculturally focused questions inspired by Deardorff’s model, one-to-one interviews with students, and semi-structured in person or written interviews with on-site program administrators.

Students in each model tended to reflect differently on their intercultural development. American program students discussed unrealistic expectations and were focused inwardly, showing reflection on themselves but not connecting that to others or their personal role in intercultural interactions. Reflections from Third Party students detailed their more internal focus, questioning their own cultures, beliefs, and orientations, intending to better accommodate those of their hosts. Direct Enrollment students reported isolation from the host culture, specifically peers.
With regard to traditional beliefs of study abroad, among Third Party and Direct Enrollment students home country peer group formation was shown to be positive, providing an opportunity to reflect upon their experiences, combining their knowledge to make sense of them and act appropriately; though it did create the more commonly discussed ‘bubble’ of segregation among American program students.
Host families were also found to be beneficial, supporting previous findings, however they were not beneficial on their own; students in American and Direct Enrollment programs often identified them as a major challenge, either perceiving hosts as unfriendly or citing communication barriers due to their limited language proficiency, while Third Party students had active programming to help them adjust to their hosts and reported more fulfilling relationships because of that.

These varied levels of engagement and experience with hosts lead to a sense of differing levels of ‘abroadness’ in the three models. Third Party students were able to experience a range of aspects of Spanish life, with support and guidance from program structures, while American students seemed to witness culture from the outside and Direct Enrollment students lived within the culture but were unable to make meaning of it, lacking guidance to help them understand the context.

In this study, administrators on-site in Spain were included to supplement the student perspective of their intercultural competence development. American program participants and administrators agreed on the positive aspects of the experiences but administrators showed a lack of understanding or empathy toward aspects their students experienced as negatives. Third Party participants and administrators showed greater agreement and understanding of each other’s perspectives. Direct Enrollment participants and administrators tended to disagree more than agree; administrators were predominantly focused on academics while their students largely lamented their limited intercultural experiences.

While previous studies have focused on student development abroad, this study was unique and successful at incorporating perceptions of intercultural development abroad from both students and administrators. This is especially important as participation numbers continue to grow and the focus in the field begins to shift from growth to more detailed evaluations to ensure these sojourns are supporting the developmental goals they claim to. Also important is the ability of this study to compare three of the main study abroad program models, as opposed to comparison of an abroad group and an at-home group.

Doctor of Philosophy, Education
University of York
Awarded January 2017

Jayme Scally
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 2425 Campus Road, Sinclair Library Rm. 128, Honolulu, HI 96822