Study Abroad: A Fast Track to Identity Development

SOWK 669.03

By: Melissa Degenhardt

Student # 10126670

Instructor: Hieu Van Ngo

Study Abroad: A Fast Track to Identity Development

Studying abroad is a fast track to exploring the multi-dimensions of identity. It is noted

that study abroad experiences can lead to a greater understanding of self and serves as an

opportunity to challenge old assumptions and beliefs (Boone, Kline, Johnson, Milburn, &

Rieder, 2013, p. 474). With the popularity of study abroad programs growing, the impacts of

these opportunities in relation to identity development have become an increased focus of recent

literature (Boone et al., 2013, p. 474). It is suggested by Boone et al. (2013) that part of what

makes studying abroad so powerful is the cross-cultural contact that occurs and that this contact

can influence changes in attitudes, behaviours, and values (p. 475). Africa especially, is known

for offering in-depth opportunities for students to facilitate their learning with regards to topics

concerning race, racial identity, and racism within their home country (Boone et al., 2013, p.

474). It suggested, that the more the destination pushes us outside of our comfort zone, the more

potential there is for identity to be challenged (Boone et al., 2013, p. 474). As someone who has

chosen to study abroad twice, I have personally witnessed the impact that study abroad

experiences have had on my identity. For me, I think it is the combination of being submerged in

another culture and the integration of experiential learning that makes study abroad much more

powerful than a regular travel experience. For the purposes of this paper, I will utilize entries in

the reflective journal I kept during a month long study abroad in Ghana, with a focus on key

identity themes found within supporting literature. I have chosen to explore three subsections of

identity development that relate the most to my experience, including: personal, professional,

and visitor identity.

Personal Identity

Study abroad programs have the potential to impact and change your personal identity in

very short periods of time. Despite this trip being less than thirty days, I know that elements of

my personal identity have been impacted by my study abroad experience in Ghana. It is

suggested by Ellwood (2011) that studying abroad is “a priceless learning opportunity that

allows you to challenge norms and rework personal characteristics and attitudes” (p. 960). It is

exciting to me that I can clearly see these personal identity development themes mentioned by

Ellwood outlined within the reflective journal that I kept during the trip. One key learning

opportunity noted is the experience of being “outside the norm” (Dolby, 2004, p. 16). I can attest

that being in Ghana certainly made me feel that I was outside the norm, being both unfamiliar

with the culture and a visible racial minority. These reflections for me are well documented on

Day 6 in my journal where I stated:

I feel the idea of normal has completely changed for me as a result of experiences on this trip.

What I am realizing is that the idea of “normal” is completely subjective and based on your

personal experiences. For example, ideals of normalcy for me are heavily influenced by the

western culture that I have grown up in (M. Degenhardt, personal communication, July 6,


It is suggested by Boone et al. (2013) that the experience of being an outsider can impact self-

identity and how we view ourselves and other people within the world (p. 475). It was also

during my reflections on normalcy that I started to make connections to my own power and


I am starting to realize how much I take for granted at home, and I am happy to have this

experience and become more appreciative and aware. I think moving forward this new

perspective will impact my identity” (M. Degenhardt, personal communication, July 6,


As anticipated by Ellwood (2011), there were also times where the group study

challenged or strengthened some of my personal characteristics (p. 960). Having my personality

challenged allowed me to acknowledge my strengths and weaknesses and this experience also

correlates to identity development. Looking back on my journal, I noted several times within my

entries that the introverted and independent parts of personality were significantly challenged by

being a part of the large group. I also recognize that a huge asset for me on the trip was my

flexibility, confidence, and openness when it came to unfamiliar or frustrating situations. I was

encouraged to learn through the work of Speer (2015) that it is thought that openness and

flexibility when studying abroad is correlated to students experiencing significant impacts on

identity (p. 15). Positive aspects of my identity were further confirmed through personal

connections made within the group which were shared by each group member in written form on

our last day in Ghana. Comments from my peers included:

- Easy going and independent, I admire your ability to go with the flow.

- I like how calm you are, keep it up.

- I love how you have been up for anything on this trip.

All of these positive comments served to strengthen aspects of my personality that I believe

contribute to me being a strong experiential learner. I think the last point made by one of my

peers speaks to my strength in being able to embrace the study abroad experience. Ellwood

(2011) asserts that there is a need for study abroad participants to have the personal capacity to

embrace the study abroad challenges and be adaptable and make adjustments (p. 963). Having

now returned from Ghana and have had time to personally reflect, I am confident that the

experience created change and also enforced existing aspects of my identity.

Professional Identity

The articulation of a professional identity is critical in social work for ensuring growth as

a professional, as well as fulfillment of values and roles within the social services sector

(Moorhead, Boetto & Bell, 2014, p. 176). According to Hackett et al. (2003), “a professional

social work identity is characterized by embodying one’s professional sense of self;

encompassing worldviews, knowledge, skill and a commitment that aligns with social work

values, ethics and visions” (as cited in Moorhead, Boetto & Bell, 2014, p. 176). It has been my

experience that study abroad opportunities have helped to shape a sense of professional identity

for myself. It is through this experience, that my passion for social justice is refuelled and I am

left with a clearer sense of problems within an international context that transcends to the

individual. It has been within the various experiential opportunities that the study abroad has

given me, that I am able to bring home with me a heightened awareness of structural inequalities,

oppression, power and privilege (Moorhead, Boetto & Bell, 2014, p. 179).

Understanding international and global contexts is especially important for social workers

today, due to the rise of globalization and transnationalism (Moorhead, Boetto & Bell, 2014, p.

176). From the experiences I have gained in Ghana, I believe that I have also gained additional

competence with working with diverse populations. By interacting with the local people,

observing the work of NGO’s and attending lectures at local universities, I am left feeling better

equipped to consider the perspectives of world views alternative from my own. Moving forward

in my career, I will be better able to understand the realities of people moving to Canada from

developing countries and how different their experiences in Canada could be from where they

came from. As a result, I now have a wider knowledge of social disadvantage and an enhanced

ability to work with diverse populations and colleagues. Due to what I have learned in Ghana, I

have an enhanced respect for cultural differences and I am better able to appreciate perspectives

outside of the Eurocentric world view that dominates North American societies.

Visitor Identity

Visitor identity is a concept found in the literature examining the effects of study abroad

and its potential impacts on participants. The concept of visitor identity speaks to a unique sense

of identity that is formed within the context of the study abroad while in the host country. Being

submerged in the host country can be very powerful, as it can serve to magnify aspects of your

social location that, when at home, feel quite small and insignificant (Boone et al., 2013, p. 474).

While visiting the host country and interacting with local people, visitors have the unique

experience of having their identity reflected back to them. Visitor identity is often impacted by

outsider perceptions and is further enhanced by the comparisons made within the host country. It

is suggested by Dolby (2004) that national identity shifts from passive to active when placed

within a new context and I experienced this first hand when I was in Ghana (p. 154). As a

Canadian visitor in Ghana, I was faced with my national identity quite often and although I had

not given a lot of thought as to what it means to be Canadian, I realized very quickly that others

had. It was through encounters with the local people that I learned about the various

preconceived notions that people hold about Canada and what it represents. We learned about the

power and privilege that is assumed of people from Canada and the economic viability that is

also perceived. The following section of my journal reflects this realization well:

This experience brings up a need for me to reflect on the perspective of my identity of others

towards me. We are told on this trip that white people are seen “as being closer to god” I

don’t know for sure but I think that this comes from an affiliation with Jesus also being

portrayed as white. I think this, on top of believing that Canada is a promise land and that we

are rich, creates a view that we as white Canadians are superior. I am hopeful and happy to

take any opportunities during this trip to try and change that view point for people in any way

that I can (M. Degenhardt, personal communication, July 18, 2017).

It is suggested by Dolby (2004) that perceptions of our own national identity can be

shaped and even challenged by the study abroad experience (p. 154). For me, it was the

individualist values embedded in western culture that were significantly challenged through my

experiences as a visitor in Ghana. Being in Ghana has left me with a new respect for the value of

community and a desire to integrate community more into my life in Canada. My appreciation

grew by observing the strength of communities in person and through an enhanced

understanding of an afro-centric world view. I also felt challenged when faced with the grim

reality of western-consumerist values when touring an e-waste site in Accra. Some of my

reactions to this challenging situation were documented in my journal entry for the day,

We live in a throwaway society, and because we are so privileged, we get to use all sorts of

goods, throw them away without a second thought, and never have to face the consequence

of our unsustainable actions. As a result, it is vulnerable places such as Ghana that truly

experience the consequence of our lifestyle (M. Degenhardt, personal communication, July 5,


I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad in Ghana and enhance my

identity in so many ways. Through an intentional embrace of the learning opportunities provided,

I believe that I have expanded my personal identity, created cultural competency within my

professional identity, and gained valuable insight through my temporary identity as a visitor. I

have learned so much in only twenty-seven days in Ghana, confirming for me that study abroad

can truly be a fast track to identity development.


Boone, K., Kline, C., Johnson, L., Milburn, L., & Rieder, K. (2013). Development of visitor

identity through study abroad in Ghana. Tourism Geographies, 15 (3), p. 470-493.

Dolby, N. (2004). Encountering an American self: Study abroad and national identity.

Comparative Education Review, 8 (2), p. 150-173.

Ellwood, C. (2011). Undoing the knots: Identity transformation in a study abroad programme.

Education Philosophy and Theory, 43 (9), p. 960-978

Moorhead, B., Boetto, H., & Bell, K. (2014). India and Us: Student development of professional

social work identity through a short-term study abroad program. Social Work Education,

332 (2), p. 175- 189.

Speer, C.D. (2015). It’s more how other people perceive you: Social identity formation through

study abroad. Fargo, ND: Proquest.