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The Influence of Study Abroad on Identity

How Immersion in South African Culture Contributes to Identities of American Students


Madeline Willett




In this era, global understanding and international relations are of the upmost importance. Due to advances in technology, political turmoil, and current economic concerns, the upcoming generation of students can expect to enter a workforce in which multiculturalism plays a significant role in personal and professional communication. The response to this expectation has been a 170% increase in study abroad by U.S. students from 2000 to 2012 (IIE 2012). Not only can these programs allow students to learn a foreign language and gain international experience to obtain a job in their chosen field, but, more importantly, study abroad is often a transformative experience that can "simultaneously influence their compassion for difference and their motivation both to engage in intercultural relationships and to behave in socially responsible ways" (Braskamp, Engberg 2011).

Previous research suggests that study abroad influences students' social identity, allowing students to see themselves as "national and global actors," and impacting them on social, national, global, and personal levels (Dolby 2004). Social identity is defined as one's affiliation with a specific group, such as a racial or religious population as a subculture. When students are placed in a cross-cultural group or immersed in another culture, "an acculturation process begins that impacts that individual's social identification" (Savicki, Cooley 2011). National identity refers to belonging to a set of inherited values and beliefs that form one's sense of their own culture. National identity is inherited based on upbringing, citizenship and international experiences that allow for the "questioning of the assumed equivalence of state and nation" which ultimately leads to more "open and inclusive" practices (Dolby 2004). Global identity, on the other hand, delves into how students see themselves in relation to the world, as a citizen of humanity rather than a citizen of a nation. This identity includes "seeing one's own uniqueness" in relation to the rest of the world (Braskamp, Engberg 2011). Finally, personal identity, or a sense of self, is how one perceives his or her own interactions, thoughts, emotions, and growth. Personal identity in study abroad involves "encountering oneself in a context that may stimulate new questions and new formulations of that self" (Dolby 2004). Study abroad pushes students to reconsider their own various identities, their beliefs and associations (Braskamp, Engberg 2011). For example, Steeves (2005) noted that students studying abroad in Ghana "reported that the actual experience was immensely more powerful and challenging than anticipated, and that no classroom exercise could have the same impact."

Throughout a study abroad experience, a student develops all four types of identity based on their increased immersion in a foreign environment and their consequent development of independence. The purpose of this study was to observe and analyze how those identities were fostered by a study abroad experience in South Africa. Through observation and in-depth interviews using the PhotoVoice method of recall (Wang 1997, Owens 2013), nine students were asked to share their experiences of immersion and identity development. The study was designed to respond to the following question: How does immersion in South African culture influence American study abroad students' perceptions of their identities? Specifically, the following research questions were addressed:

  1. What will a group of American students studying abroad for four weeks on an American Institute for Foreign Study(AIFS) program to Stellenbosch, South Africa experience culturally and psychologically?
  2. How valid is the methodology of Photvoice in reporting students’ reflections on identity?
  3. How does the concept of identity relate to cultural immersion?




Study Design

Study abroad is a crucial experience for any student who wishes to become a "national and global actor" (Dolby 2004). When students are immersed in another culture, they not only learn the customs and thought processes of the people there, but they also use this new information to reflect on themselves and their previous experiences. This study, which utilizes qualitative, in depth interviews and Photovoice methodology as a means to enhance study participants' ability to communicate how their experiences have influenced their perceptions of identity, was designed with this consequent reflection in mind. Within this study, students were expected to self-analyze and determine how their identities had been influenced on social, national, global, and personal levels. The gathering of participants' perceptions was accomplished through an entry and exit questionnaire, an in-depth interview, and the use of Photovoice.

Photovoice is a methodology that uses photography as a tool to empower individuals and communities (Wang 1997, Owens 2013). This methodology involves participants taking photographs that reflect their views on specific aspects of life and then having participants discuss the stories behind the photos in an effort to promote critical dialogue about important ideas and issues. While this methodology is typically used to yield results for researchers in health and science fields, (Wang 1997, Owens 2013), this study employed Photovoice as a tool to encourage students to recall their study abroad experiences and to describe these experiences more accurately and completely. Students and tourists typically use photography as the primary method for recording their experiences and due to the nature of this study as a travel experience, students already planned to photograph their experiences to share upon their return, making photography a perfect method to incite recall. Also, since students had cellular phones and cameras available, all participants were able to take photos at any point throughout the trip, which provided a more accurate record of their time in South Africa.

The program through which this research took place was a summer study abroad to Stellenbosch University in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Since the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) created the program, its popularity has increased and today there are several study abroad companies that send their students to SU, including the Center for International Studies (CIS), a company study abroad provider. SU offers three types of summer programs for students from all over the world through their Postgraduate and International Office ― Service-learning, Traditional, and Business. The participants in this study were all enrolled at Stellenbosch University and participating in their chosen summer program. Students spent a total of 4.5 to 5 weeks in South Africa, depending on their choice of program. Students from all three programs live together alongside South African students in an on-campus residence, participate in an orientation session together, and take a Political History of South Africa course together during their first week. After the first week, the service-learning students alternate between classroom work and working in the townships, the traditional students move on to their chosen classes, and the business students follow the schedule for business-oriented class work. While this summer group of international students was primarily Americans, students from Singapore, China, and Taiwan were also present.


Recruitment for this study focused primarily on thirteen American students participating in the Service-learning and Traditional style programs. The researcher was a participant in the “Traditional” program at Stellenbosch University. The researcher attended classes alongside the other traditional program students, but lived in the same building, attended the same excursions, and ate all meals with students and participants from all programs. After an initial orientation session with the SU staff about the university opportunities available and basic safety information, students from all programs were individually approached by the researcher and asked if they would be willing to participate in the research project. Those who assented were given an overview of the project design and an entry questionnaire to complete and return by the end of the first week. Thirteen students returned the entry questionnaires and interviews were arranged with each participant for the fourth and fifth weeks of the study abroad. The participants were also introduced to the Photovoice methodology and were instructed to take pictures over the next three weeks and then choose six to ten pictures that they believed defined their experiences in Stellenbosch. Ultimately, nine students followed through with their interview times and pictures and therefore fully participated in the project.

Interview Procedure

The interviews were conducted in-person and on-site at Stellenbosch University toward the end of the study abroad program. Each interview began with a review of the project goals and an explanation of social, national, global, and personal identity. Participants were promised confidentiality if desired. Specifically, the participant was asked a series of questions about each of the six to ten photos they chose, followed by a series of questions about their cultural adjustment and their overall study abroad experience. The questions were semi-structured, with follow-up questions, or probes, included. At the end of the interview, students completed a paper and pencil exit questionnaire that captured how their new understanding of South African culture had influenced their perceptions of their identities on national and global levels. Recruitment and interview procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the author's US university.

Instrument Development

A three-part interview protocol was developed and pre-tested by interviewing a previous study abroad student. Questions were developed based on the compiled definitions of social, national, global, and personal identity and academic literature about the typical cultural adjustment period(Dolby 2004). The first few questions focused on the Photovoice portion of the project and were formulated to help the student share their pictures with the researcher and reflect on where, when, with whom, and why the photo was taken. The questions gradually moved into more identity-defining inquiries about how the photo demonstrated their perceptions of themselves and their study abroad experiences. This initial questioning was repeated for all of the photos. Afterward, the student was asked about their cultural adjustment and their take-away from the experience.

Sample questions from the first portion of the interview process using PhotoVoice included: What was happening around you when you took this photo? What moved you to take this photo? What does this photo, or the situation taking place in the photo, mean to you? How does this photo depict your perception of some identity you have? Sample questions from the second and third portions were as follows: What was the most unexpected part of your adjustment to South Africa? Describe a meaningful high and low point of your experience in South Africa? What lessons/ideas/experiences will you take back with you when you return from your time abroad? The full interview protocol can be seen in the Appendix.

The paper and pencil exit questionnaires consisted of four open-ended questions that probed the participants to consider what they had gained from their study abroad experience academically and personally, and also to give an explanation of what it means to them to be identified as an American or identified as South African. The final question asked students what they thought of the project and Photovoice methodology and how it could be improved.

Qualitative Data Coding and Analysis

Audio recordings of the interviews were transcribed verbatim into Microsoft Word. After both the interview transcriptions and questionnaires were read and studied carefully, a coding system was developed manually. The coding was developed to identify which responses dealt with each type of identity. Mentions of being part of a group, comments on other students or their behaviors, and references to how different groups interacted with one another all fell into the category of social identity. For example, when students brought up an aspect of American or South African culture, it was classified as national identity. If students discussed these cultures intermingling or how they fit into the bigger picture of humanity, these responses were coded as global identity. For responses regarding how the students believed they had changed or been impacted personally, the researcher coded these as personal identity. Upon the completion of this coding, the researcher detected emerging themes and analyzed the responses of each student in order to detect similarities and differences (Savicki, Cooley 2013).




Basic demographic characteristics

The participants selected for this study were American students who studied abroad in Stellenbosch, South Africa for the summer term. About half of the students had previous international experience, such as traveling abroad with their parents, but none had studied abroad before. All the students were enrolled in US institutions and seeking their bachelor's degrees. The students' major area of study varied, including nursing, economics, education, and English. One student was attending a US institution, but was not originally from the United States. All the participants were female, which reflected the majority of students participating in the program.

In total, participants provided narratives and descriptions of 71 photographs. The photographs varied in subject matter, but many of the following subjects were captured: a) South African landscape, b) animal life, c) groupings of multicultural friends, d) travel excursions, e) South African people. Based upon the qualitative analysis of the Photovoice images, audio recordings of the participant interviews and entry and exit questionnaire, prominent themes emerged from the in-depth interviews under each category of social, national, global, and personal identity. For social identity, the themes of cross-cultural friendship, formation of cliques among students, language as a barrier or a tool, and their sense of belonging emerged. Themes under national identity included South African manners, pride, and the beautiful landscape contrasting with poverty; as well as, American appreciation for rights, the need to be the "best," and a hesitancy to be identified as American. Themes under global identity were material versus emotional wealth in humanity, different standards of poverty, and a questioning of culturally-imposed norms. Themes under personal identity were an appreciation for nature, appreciation of privilege, a willingness to try new things, and a broadened view of humanity.

Social Identity

Connection and the formation of friendships between students recurred in many of the interviews. One student said, "I have actually come to appreciate people more than ever . . . I am going to take with me all the friendships that I made here and I am going to treasure them." Another student said, "The most unexpected element [of the study abroad] was becoming friends with my roommate who was South African. Not only did she fully embrace me, which was so incredible on her part, but she also took the time to show me around town. She took me to her favorite shops, she took me to the mall, she taught be how to buy a South African phone and put minutes on it, how to exchange money. Without her, I would be really lost and I appreciate everything she has done for me." Another student talked about her best friend she made in South Africa: "He is just like my family here...the fact that I have become so close to someone halfway around the world from me and we are already deciding to stay friends...I guess I am just surprised that when I feel homesick, I go to someone who is from South Africa."

Some students felt discouraged by the quick development of cliques, when students grouped together and did not seek interaction with the larger group, upon arrival in Stellenbosch. One student said cliques are a "reality when you are here with people you have never met." Another student observed how the groups not only formed, but changed throughout the course of time. She said, "Everyone kind of formed their cliques right away. Even though none of us knew anyone, within the first five days, everyone like formed their group and kind of how they represented people and expanded here or there, things changed. The dynamic of the cliques faded and it is like new ones formed. It is just interesting . . . I would say you are attracted to people who are like you and especially when we are in a place that is unfamiliar." She pointed out that she did not like the development of these cliques and said, "It happened so quickly before people even got to know each other and it restricted them, restricted me, from getting to know people I would have a great opportunity to know . . . you miss that opportunity to meet someone who is completely different from you and unique, which is why we studied abroad here." Another student found that her experience as part of the student group was impacted by a specific experience: "The bonding that occurred there and then to be able to lie out under the stars and see the Milky Way, having that surreal experience with everyone else, that was really cool how much I felt like we were all together."

In a nation with eleven official languages, students noticed that language plays a large part in the social context of South Africa. "Hearing people speak different languages," said one student, "I have really enjoyed that. A lot of the time you hear people talking and you have no idea what language it is, which is just cool." Language served as a barrier for some students who were not always able to communicate as well with locals, but also acted as a tool for some who felt that by knowing South African slang and some language, they were more connected to the culture. One student reflected on a humorous story of how much language meant to the children she was playing with one day in a township. "They come up to us every morning and say 'Molo, molo' and finally we are like, oh, that means 'hello' and so we say 'molo' back and they get so excited. And so finally I surprised the kids by learning the word, 'Ninjani' which means 'how are you.' The kids freaked out and they are all speaking to me in Xhosa and they are clicking away and I am just standing there thinking, oh, no I forgot how to respond."

Language development also contributed to how the students interacted with locals as long-term visitors, rather than tourists. One student pointed out the way being a student in the nation made it more like" building a life" there when she said, "College life here is like college life at home. It is funny how you can build a life here and it is just so, there are all these things that you do that are just so normal. Like, getting up in the morning and taking a shower, making your bed. It is the same here as it is at home; you are just a half a world away." The same student later said, "You can talk and say, what has been your reality as a person of this color or from this tribe. I think that is the great thing about having South Africans in our class and that is something you don't get when you are a tourist ― knowing people who live here." One student even advised that future travelers should "be willing to learn from people because that is the best part of traveling ― talking to the people." Another students said she felt included because she read a sign that read, "Do no braii on this stoep." She said: "We know what it means to braii and not just what the word itself means, but we know what a braii is and we have experienced a braii."

National Identity

Many students addressed how "friendly and open" or "polite" South Africans were. One student said that when she arrived without her suitcase, a South African girl gave her some soap and clothing. She said, "I thought, wow, South Africans are really, really nice and they are very hospitable." Another said that most South Africans were "happy and willing to make jokes because they are just really nice." However, in other cases, students felt they were unwelcome. A student described her experience being stared at by locals and said, "it got to a certain point where it made me uncomfortable because wherever I went, people were staring at me. Maybe because even though I am black, I don't look South African . . . but at a certain point, I got used to it. I have had people stop to ask me where I am from, so it is kind of obvious they were just trying to satisfy that curiosity." Another student was put off by the "disorganization" in the daily life of South Africa.

Additionally, students admired the pride that the South Africans took in their nation. One student described her experience when listening to the South African students sing the national anthem: "When they started singing the national anthem, at that moment, I felt a chill. I had goose bumps all over my body. I was like, wow, South Africa, they were singing with such passion. And they were all different people, white people, black people, coloured people, they were all singing. They all don't look alike, but they were so into their national anthem and at that point I realized wow, this is truly Africa. All different people, especially in South Africa, can come together to do this song." Several students commented on how impactful this anthem was for them. They also took pride in the moments where they felt included in this South African identity. For example, a student said, "It is sort of them letting us in on their national and cultural identity."

The way in which the South African landscape contrasted with the poverty throughout the nation affected several students. Several photos depicted rainbows in the foreground of the mountainous region of Cape Town and many included Table Mountain. One student said "My first impressions of south Africa were that I was very transfixed with South Africa and Table Mountain and similarly, these mountains. I just kept saying 'No one prepared me for how beautiful it was!'" The same student later looked at one of her photos of a township in a valley and said, "For me, South Africa is a country of contrasts; you have the really, really poor, a lot of poverty contrasted with natural wealth. For me, that was a very South African picture. You come to this place and you are awestruck by the natural beauty and you get this premier experience and you are living the life and then you forget to look down at the little guys who are living in townships. You are driving down the road and you put your blinders on." This reflection built to a reflection of how America classifies and treats their poor. A student later said, "We do the same thing in America, we don't think about the poverty, and it is interesting to me that to us, we have the poor but our poor are not like their poor. When we went to Langa, they were showing that the best case scenario for them is to live in these flats, these multi-family apartment buildings, which to us, is something bad. But to them, that is what they aspire to. So, it is like adding a whole new dimension to what we consider poverty and how fortunate we really are." One participant mentioned the contrast in her photo of a botanical garden: "The buildings are gorgeous, the garden is gorgeous, the sunlight is gorgeous, and then there are these barbed wire fences."

As the students were impacted by South African identity, it elicited their reflections on their own American national identity. Primarily, students had a new appreciation for their rights. One student said that when she talked to the South African students, it inspired her that "they feel very fortunate that they are getting an education and they feel like they are the change for the next generation." Another student developed a new appreciation for her voting rights: "We saw a video where at the end of apartheid, they had to stand in a mile-long line just to vote and I didn't even vote in the last election because I didn't know enough about it. So, I feel like I have been abusing that power and I should appreciate it more."

Some students began to dislike that American identity often coincides with "western, civilized" arrogance. One student mentioned that she felt that the sheep head she was offered by a South African in the townships was repulsive to her because of how she had been influenced by American beliefs. "Why have we turned away from eating the sheep heads? What has caused us to do that? It is the national identity where we draw the line between what is weird and what is acceptable." Many students noticed arrogance amongst the other American students during the Fourth of July celebrations at the residence. One student said, "So many of us are patriotic and at the same time, you can feel like, no, not really. I mean, if you learn a lot about America and our government and our policies, you realize that America is not the greatest. We have done some bad things; we also have done some great things, so I don't know. Being an American, I feel like you can be proud of your country without saying it is the BEST. I like where I live, I love the people, and it is home. But I don't have to say it is the best. It doesn't have to be the best; it is just that it is your place, your home, your country." Another student also disagreed with the students' need to be the best and said, "I guess one thing I learned is how I don't want to act and don't want people around me to act."

The American students also experienced a hesitancy to identify themselves as Americans. One student mentioned "Everyone says, oh, people love it when they find out we are Americans, they think it is so interesting, but I have not had that. You don't want to be seen as that. That is why Canadians wear their flag everywhere. They don't want to be identified as Americans and I have kind of noticed that. I don't want people to know I am American if I don't have to. It is weird to have to hide it. But I know it is not because of me, not something I did, it is just the image that they have of America." Another student defined this image as "perceived American culture is just kind of being unaware of what is going on and how many things have been similar here to American culture, but our struggles are so different that the rest of the world." Yet another student told the story of how she was harassed in Cape Town for being American: "We were in CT on the Saturday before President Obama was scheduled to speak at UCT that Sunday. We were walking back to the bus and this man started following us around and basically yelling at us. At first he was asking where we were from and trying to figure out if we were American. We didn't even answer him, but he just started yelling profanities. He started relating it to how Mandela was in the hospital and how we being here and Obama is coming while Mandela is dying. It was really kind of confusing and terrifying all at the same time. Obviously, I have not fully overcome that because I was in shock. I did expect something like that, I knew that coming here, not everyone would be totally accepting. But I was not expecting the degree to which this man was upset with us and he didn't know us, he just assumed that we were American."

Global Identity

As the program progressed, students said that they became part of a greater global identity focused on humanity. One student commented the she found it interesting those South African, Chinese, Singaporean, and American students could all share the learning experience together. She said, "It is nice that I have been able to experience that diversity here." She later commented on how she learned "how people from different backgrounds can still be friends." Another student was stirred by the idea that humanity in South Africa was less focused on material wealth, but rather a more global pursuit of happiness: "They may have material poverty, but they can still be wealthy in their lives and relationships with other people." The same student discussed the differences between this spiritual wealth in the townships to the nearby first-world city of Cape Town: "It was strange to me that we were in such a foreign place, but this was such a familiar scene. This could be a street anywhere. And I think that gets into global identity to where the world is such a place where you can, it is modern enough, that you could go to any corner of the world and you could see the same amenities. So it is kind of like how similar global identity can be. We are in this unique place, but it is still familiar. And there was something really familiar about CT. It looks like any other city, really. It is a modern, first-world city."

Other students developed a global identity by reflecting on themselves within nature. On student commented on a photo of her hiking when she stated "I like that there is a big world and a tiny us... If you are focusing on the frame of the picture, the human doesn't matter. But if it is a close-up, a personal portrait, the focus shifts, so it is about finding your place in the bigger, natural world." Another student discussing nature cited her purpose for travel: "It is just realizing your place. Your place in the world, your place in the country, your place in space." One student said that the nature made her realize "there is so many bigger things than just us and our problems and our issues. Nature can do amazing things." When commenting on a whale-watching trip, one student said, "I think we all kind of catch that responsibility of taking care of the earth and taking care of each other. I guess that is kind of a cliché, but our identity as humans is just to look out for each other, not judge each other."

In addition to nature, students were prompted to consider their global identities through experiences in the city. When receiving traditional African face paint, a student said "We associated ourselves with the traditional African customs. I think it made us feel American in the sense that we had never had something like this, but at the same time, I didn't feel confined as just an American. I felt like a global citizen and we were trying each other's traditions." The same participant mentioned that her surprise about the intricacy of the architecture within the city made her consider that she "shouldn't generalize so much." Another student said she felt more connected to the world as a whole. "I think I'll take back just kind of being open to other cultures and other people and realizing that no place is perfect. Everywhere has its flaws. But everywhere has really great things about it. Everyone here has been, I felt like, really friendly and open. I feel like that is one of the best characteristics that you can have is to be open to other people. Just being more open and realizing that there is so much more than just America." A service-learning participant who worked in the townships daily expressed her new view of humanity and how she hopes others will view it. "I think, yeah, I want to live simply so others can simply live. But how am I supposed to apply that to a first-world country where if you smile at someone walking down the street, people give you funny looks. So, I am interested to see how I am able to take this back and change, not change, I want other people to see the same way, I guess, but I want it to be because they want to see the world through those eyes."

Personal Identity

Themes under personal identity were an appreciation for nature, appreciation of privilege, a willingness to try new things, and a broadened view of humanity.

Students reflected on their personal lives and choices when in the South African landscape. One student described her journey hiking in Cape Point, a trip she did not anticipate making and said, "It showed me that sometimes, you've got to keep pushing forward, and you are going to get a beautiful view in the end." She later reflected on the fact that she has come "to appreciate nature more than anything else." Another student said her experience on an ocean excursion impacted her the most: "I swam with great white sharks - that is kind of crazy. And you think when I am willing to push my boundaries and try in this strange country. It is like eating the sheep head, but this is more of a commitment than the sheep head because this is potentially dangerous." She said that she was "deathly afraid" of this commitment, but knew that her experience would "stretch" her personal identity. Another student pointed out that similar landscapes made me more homesick and said "[the land] made me realize how much I appreciate being from a rural community back home. There is just this big, open space with greenery and trees around it and it actually made me miss home."

Many students were impacted personally by the exposure to poverty and tended to reflect on how grateful they were for their privileged lives. One student said, "I just think it is really important to see that, you know, you watch TV shows and you see homeless people and poor people in Africa, and you become desensitized to that until you actually see it. Then it is heartbreaking - I wanted to cry. It just broadened my perspective of the world to see that yeah, this really does happen." Another student expressed her emotions about visiting the townships as "confusion, mixed emotions, kind of badness and frustration that people do have to live like that." One student said, "I had no idea the differences between the people, not only during apartheid, but now. You can learn it in a text book that they had different classifications of people, but hearing it from the people who live here really broadened my perspective." Most were "grateful" for their lives and said that the experience caused them to "realize how privileged [they] are." Another participant said "I thought I wasn't taking anything for granted in my life. I thought I was very appreciative. I was wrong."

Foremost, students were enthusiastic about visible elements of their personal growth. One student said that study abroad taught her "what you are willing to go for." When talking about her experience eating sheep head in the township, she said, "You think, it is something weird, it is something you normally wouldn't do, but you say, what the heck. It is quick, then it is over with and you can say you tried it. That is personal identity - am I willing to go out of my comfort zone? Am I willing to do something I consider disgusting?" Other participants mentioned they felt "more independent," "more accepting of others," "and "so much braver than I ever thought I could be." One student said that South Africa was the "perfect place for me to try to get away from all the noise at home and figure out who I am." She later mentioned that she was "much more open to people" and had learned to value herself, "without compromising [her] values or morals." Another participant describing her personal take-away from the study abroad said, "Opening my eyes to other people and just probably not being as ignorant in my own little bubble and trying to expand outside of that as well." But overall, the students had much of the same advice: "Defy the comfort zone," "just go for it," and "just put yourself out there."




The self-reflective nature of this study allowed students to self-analyze how their identities were influenced throughout their study abroad and to be honest and forthcoming with details about their journeys. It contributed to the study the alteration of these types of identity as they directly relate to a study abroad experience. It is apparent that one or more of each type of identity was altered throughout the study for each participant. Often, the specific experiences that influenced participants' identities were difficult to self-report or specify, but the participants all expressed gratitude and awe of their experiences at some point throughout the interviews. The following are key findings of this study.

Instantaneous/Quickened Friendship Formation

While students reported frustration about the formation of "cliques," this formation could also simply be described as a very fast-pace bonding that allowed students to create a sense of familiarity in a purposefully foreign environment. Most students arrived in Stellenbosch alone and were eager to form friendships with those who would share this experience with them for the next five weeks. These friendships provided comfort, routine, and an almost familial bond for students who desired to be a part of a group. While some students were disappointed by this formation because they felt it detracted from their ability to know a variety of students, this desire was simply the natural instinct of reforming their social identities in a new environment. Interestingly, these friendship groups were primarily based on shared interests and not on nationalities. For example, a group of a few Americans, South Africans, and Taiwanese may have formed based on the fact that they enjoyed being outdoors and hiking.

Emotional Connection to Host Culture

Especially toward the end of the study abroad, students expressed their interconnectedness with their host culture and nation. Many participated in celebratory exchanges when they recognized or correctly pronounced a word in Africaans or Xhosa. When reflecting on their photos, students emphasized the details of where they were and the historical/cultural/social significance of the place as if they were a native explaining the site to a foreigner. Students mentioned feelings of belonging as a friend and short-term resident of South Africa rather than simply a tourist. They felt that they had interacted more deeply with their environment and the South Africans than a typical tourist would. Students also reported a sense of pride in understanding more history and South African nationalism, especially in regards to apartheid and how it has affected the modern perceptions of South Africa, than upon their arrival.

Intermittent Reflection on Home Culture

Throughout the study abroad, several key moments impacted the students' perceptions of American culture. Several students reported being deeply impacted by the moment in which their South African peers sang their national anthem. The South Africans sang this song with emotion and several of the students, South African and American, were crying when they finished. American students expressed a feeling of self-doubt about their own pride for their home country because they had not treated their own national anthem with such respect and emotion before. Also, students who spent time in the townships often mentioned feelings of despair and "being drained" because they had not witnessed such poverty in the U.S. A few students said they had not thought about the conditions of the poor in their home country and were unsure how to judge their own standard of living. One-third of the participants reported that they had often questioned their American identity throughout the course of the study abroad and that they would be hesitant to admit their nationality in front of South Africans. Several other students, however, reported increased pride in their American nationality and gratitude for their upbringing in the U.S.

Heightened Sense of Global Belonging

All students felt an increased global connection and an obligation to be an agent of positive change in humanity. Upon completion of the study abroad, students had less ethnocentric views and were more willing to accept other cultures, even the diverse cultures within South Africa, rather than to judge them based on their own morality or citizenship. Particularly in reference to nature and their learning about South African political history, students developed a "big picture" outlook and were more hesitant to make quick judgments or assumptions about new cultural practices. This outlook also led to increased personal conviction, confidence, and independence in the students. All students expressed some level of increased willingness to try and learn new things and all but one participant were eager to explore further travel possibilities in a global context.

Overall, these key findings expressed the students' self reported altered identities throughout the course of the study abroad. However, there were several limitations to this study. The first is that this study consisted of only females. While this does reflect a national average of more American females studying abroad than American males (IIE 2012), future studies should address the different gender-based interpretations and sharing involved in documenting and interviewing study abroad students. The second is that this study took place over a short-term (summer) study abroad. Results and findings could have been altered by a longer period of study abroad in which students would have more time to develop different social groupings and undergo waves of homesickness and culture shock. The third is that this study took place in a non-traditional location (a term used to describe study abroad locations outside of Western Europe), but also a location in which one of the national languages was English. In a location where the students would need to learn language, the study may have had more cultural collisions, mental exhaustion, and information about how communication shapes identity. A further limitation of the study was the nature of individual interviews. Students self-reported on cultural and emotion experiences, as pertaining to the first research question. While the combination of observation and self-reporting contributed to the intimacy and amount of detail of students’ experiences, the data presented in interviews is limited by what participants chose to share. Since these interviews took place near the end of the program, students also had an altered perspective of their experiences in retrospect. This may have contributed to the positive nature of most of the interviews because students could chose to share only their most memorable experiences in the interview portion.

In response to the second research inquiry, the use of PhotoVoice methodology, primarily used in the field of health, as a form of recall (Wang 1997, Owens 2013), worked excellently for this study and would be encouraged in future studies of study abroad. Because most study abroad students are already documenting their experiences through photos, it was a personalized and direct way to get students involved in describing their experiences. The photos also helped them recall specific details they may not have remembered otherwise and allowed them to share in a tangible way. Students were excited to share their photos and this excitement put them in a reflective mood that made the interview information richer and more complete.

In addition to the theoretical findings focused on the concepts of identity related to cultural immersion, this study also has practical implications. In creating future study abroad programs or itineraries, study abroad practitioners should find more tools to increase social interaction among diverse groups of students. The quick friendship formation was the one issue that all students addressed in their interviews. While this was indeed a natural reaction to an unfamiliar environment, the friendships and group bonds formed so quickly that few students got to know each other across these groupings. In similar programs in which students live and study together, several obligatory groupings for certain projects or excursions could be implemented early in the program. Timing would be crucial for such bonding because the groupings are so quick to form. Through implemented interaction among the larger group, some of these "clique-type" groups could be avoided.




  1. Interview Protocol

((Interview Note: All interviews will be audio-recorded and notes will be written by the interviewer in order to ensure accuracy and to save all information. Following the interview, the interviewer will also write down overall impressions and observations of the interview. The interviewee should provide the digital copies of their ten selected PhotoVoice photos before the interview begins.))


"I would like to begin by saying thank you for participating in this research. I would like to confirm that you understand that I am conducting a study about the influence of a South African study abroad experience the identities of American students. Your input and personal conclusions are very valuable to me, so please do not hesitate to provide personal anecdotes, experiences, or to elaborate on any given response. However, you are not required to respond to any question that you do not wish you answer and you may quit this study at any time."

((At this time, wait for confirmation from participant before continuing with interview process.))


1.) "First, I would like to ask you about your Photo Voice results. Please take a moment to review the definitions of the levels of identity in the consent form." ((Provide the participant with a copy of the definitions to read before beginning with interview questions)) "Would you like anything clarified before we begin?" ((Wait for response. Respond if necessary, providing more detail and ensuring participant's understanding.)) "Please also take note that if you are answering any question about a photograph of a person who wishes to be identified by a pseudonym, you should refer to this person by this pseudonym to remove identifiers."


Q1― PhotoVoice Results

            ((Select the first of the ten photos.))

  • Describe the object/person/place in your photo?

-What is occurring in the photo?

  • What was occurring around you when you took this photo?

-Who was with you when you took this photo?

-When/where were you when you took this photo?

-What moved you to take this photo?

  • What does this photo, or the situation taking place in the photo, mean to you?

-Explain how this photo reminded you of identity as we previously discussed.

((If not offered, probe on what type of identity this represents-personal, social, national, or global))

-What emotions does this photo evoke for you?

((Repeat with ten selected photos.))


2.) "Next, I'd like to ask you about your cultural adjustment to South Africa. I'd like more information about your journey to South Africa and your lived experiences while you participated in this study abroad experience."


Q2― Cultural Adjustment to South Africa

  • Describe a meaningful high point for you during the first three weeks of the study abroad program.

-How did you feel in this moment?

-What contributed to your success in this moment?

  • Describe a contrasting low point you experienced over the course of the first three weeks of this experience (can be emotionally, culturally, situational, etc.)

-How did you feel in this moment?

-How did you overcome the low point?

  • What was the most surprising or unexpected element of your adjustment to South Africa?
  • Tell me about a situation in which you were impacted by an element of South African culture (this includes people, places, interactions, sights, experiences, etc.)?
  • When you think about your experience from the moment you arrived in South Africa until now, how do you think your identity has changed?

((Probe, if difficult to answer: On a personal, social, national, or global level))


3.) "Finally, I would like to talk about your plans for the future and how you will use this experience when you return to your home university."

Q3― Future/Take-away from Study Abroad

  • What have you learned about South African culture that you feel you could not have learned, or is more difficult to comprehend, in a typical American classroom at your home university? ((Probe: Academic, cultural, and personal levels))
  • Tell me about where you see yourself in the next five years of your life.

-Elaborate if your plans for the next five years are different now than they were when you arrived in South Africa.

  • What lessons/ideas/experiences will you take with you from this study abroad when you return to the United States?


4.) "Is there anything else you would like to add?"

"Again, thank you for taking the time to participate in this research and to sit down and talk with me. It is the intention of this study that the information you provided here today will help to form ideas and conversations about the influence of study abroad on identity. I wish you the best in achieving your future goals based on your experiences here in South Africa."




About the Author 

Madeline WillettMadeline Willett

A graduate of the University of South Carolina with a B.A. in Spanish, Madeline Willett is a former international education professional now working as a Tour Director in Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. Awarded the Magellan Scholars Grant in 2013, Madeline completed her project entitled: "The Influence of Study Abroad on Identity: How Immersion in South African Culture Contributes to Identities of American Students." As the primary researcher on this project, she spent a summer in Stellenbosch, South Africa, observing, interviewing, and collecting visual data from a group of American study abroad students. Guided by faculty mentors, she developed protocol, performed the research, and compiled the results in written and presentation formats. As a former participant in international study abroad pursuits in Argentina and Spain, Madeline proposed this project as a method for developing a knowledge base in the international education industry that ultimately led to her career in travel.

The experience of performing the research in South Africa validated Madeline’s career goals and motivated her to continue to research and develop new ideas for improving the immersive study abroad programs for college students. She now uses these developments to help students and travelers more effectively gain the benefits of short-term immersion. Since completing the research in 2013, Madeline went on to pursue a full-time career in the travel industry, becoming certified by the International Tour Management Institute and licensed to guide groups in several territories and cities. This research was also presented at the 2014 Discovery Day, in which it won first place in its presentation section.




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