What happens when you study abroad?

I came across an interesting article the other day via a friend on Facebook who is studying at the same university as me. As an international student in London she found the article very fitting to her experience so far. The title quickly drew my attention: What Happens When You Live Abroad. I read the first two paragraphs and thought not much of it, but by the third and fourth paragraph I was struck by some of the similarities with my research participants. It reflects some of what my participants have been saying thus far in the interviews, not to mention some of my own personal experiences (see article).

Although this article is written from the perspective of someone who has lived abroad for a long period of time (likely several years) — while my participants are only abroad for one year or semester — it does resonate with some of the themes in my interviews so far. In particular, the idea that living in a different country can provoke changes to the self and is often the motivation for people to move abroad. This notion of ‘personal change’ while abroad, whether as a motivation or outcome, is often noted in the literature on study abroad. Students often seek out international exchanges as an opportunity to ‘escape’ and develop personal growth. The author observes that just going to the grocery story is an exciting activity and that “having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you.” As she noted, this can bring on a new found sense of confidence. This has often been the case with my participants and something that I can relate to from personal experience.

However, not all aspects of this article are relevant to my research, particularly what the author discusses as ‘the fears’. This idea or sense of fear has seldom come up during my interviews. My participants are well aware of their brief, finite time in their host country and as a result, seek to maximize their sojourn abroad with the comfort of knowing that they will soon return home. They are not considered expats but nor do they consider themselves tourists. For these students, they belong to a different spatio-temporal category.

The part of this piece that really captured my interest is the idea that a part of you remains in the different places that you call (or once called) ‘home’. There seems to be a sense of ‘in-betweeness’ when studying or living abroad. You feel in-between two places, and in some cases, two ‘homes’. When you return to your home country, there is often a nostalgia and longing to go “back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there.” As if a certain part of yourself can be revived or reanimated in this place. The author suggests that  “you realize that much of ‘you’ was based more on geographic location than anything else.” Whether this is the case for my participants remains to be seen, but the author also mentions the idea of putting oneself through an ‘uncomfortable new situation’ to incite personal change and this is a theme that is strongly reflected in my interviews with participants as well as in the literature, and something that I’m eager to explore further in my research. [What Happens When You Live Abroad]

Intercultural UNESCO schools conference

In December I had the unique opportunity to be a facilitator for high school students from Germany, the United-States and Canada as part of a UNESCO schools conference on Human Rights Education. The conference was part of a tri-national project between Israel, Germany and Canada with the goal to promote Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education through intercultural dialogue.

Opening ceremony

Opening ceremony

The conference took place in Winnipeg, Canada, and despite the frigid temperatures, the atmosphere and camaraderie was warm and welcoming. With a mix of German, American, French Canadians, native/aboriginal and Québécois students, the conference was a great opportunity for young people to engage in intercultural dialogue. Students regarded the conference as an invaluable intercultural learning experience. Although my research project examines the experience of university students on an academic exchange semester or year abroad, it would be interesting to explore the impact of short-term exchanges such as these on young people’s awareness and understanding of cultures, both within national borders and internationally. UNESCO Schools Conference “Learning to Change our World Together”

Home sweet home, where art thou?

With my research project exploring young Canadians’ sense of citizenship, identity and home in the context of international student mobilities, it was inevitable that my return to Canada during the holidays would cause me to reflect on my own sense of home.

Parliament in Ottawa

I’ve come to realize through my experiences as an international student (both current and past) that my idea of home has become ever more complex and ambiguous. When I’m in London I refer to Ottawa as ‘home’, and when I’m in Ottawa I refer to London as home. Do I then consider having two homes? Is my reference to ‘home’ in this case just a descriptive term to refer to different physical locations of residence or is it a symbolic emotional attachment to place?


As I write this post, the song ‘Home’ by Phillip Phillips is appropriately playing on the radio. What is ‘home’? What constitutes home for people? A house, a place, symbolic material objects, family, social networks? What about the role of time? How does time influence our idea of home? These are just some of the broader questions I’m exploring in my study.

One thing is certain, ‘home’ is a complex and often ambiguous concept, one that I hope my study will help shed some light on.

Mapping global student flows

A neat interactive map from UNESCO that illustrates the global flows of students in higher education. The United-States is the top destination country for Canadians, followed by the United Kingdom, Australia, and France. Canadian students are clearly drawn to universities in English or French speaking countries in the developed world. This suggests that Canadians are motivated to study abroad to attend institutions of higher education with a reputation for quality of education rather than for the purpose of second language acquisition.  UNESCO map of student flows


Student flows from Canada

“Where do students go to study? Where do they come from? UIS data on the mobility of students shed light on the shifting demand for higher education, particularly in the developing world.”

Governor General promotes intercultural exchanges

While speaking to the media in Vimy this year, the Governor General of Canada advocated for Canadian youth participation in international and national academic exchanges.

Governor General talks of giving Canadian youth chance to spend more time abroad

“I would love to see a situation where a condition of university or college education would be to spend a term or a year abroad not simply as a visitor but on an academic exchange or a work exchange,” — David Johnston, Governor General of Canada

University leaders want more Canadians to study abroad

Study abroad and international student exchanges are gaining more interest within Canadian higher education. Canadian university leaders are recognizing the value of study abroad and international student exchanges. It’s great to see some media attention on this topic in Canada. University leaders want more Canadians to study abroad

“If I had a choice, I’d take the number of students that have a significant international exposure and multiply it by 10 or 20,” — Sean Riley, president, St. Francis Xavier University

“It exposes you, it transforms you, changes you as a person – you never see the world in the same way again,” — Tom Traves, president, Dalhousie University