This study is an exploratory examination of the culture learning experiences of university study abroad students during their time abroad as reflected in essays written during the in-country phase. I conducted a content analysis of six essays each of ten University of Minnesota students who studied in Australia for one semester and who participated in an online, strategies-based, culture learning course for which I was the instructor.
It is a general understanding among international educators that in order to develop interculturally, one must go through the challenges inherent in the discomfort of negotiating the unfamiliar territory of a new culture, recognize cultural difference, and be able to accommodate it. However, Hofstede's research contends that Australia and the United States have similar cultural dimension scores. Related to that, the students included in this study predictably had experiences of lower psychological stress when considering Paige's Intensity Factors. While working with the students studying in Australia these points led to the question, "Do students studying in similar cultures to their own experience challenges or discomfort if the host culture doesn't feel new?" This developed into the research question of this study, which was "To what extent is there evidence of intercultural development as seen in the students' essays?"
The students, for the most part, were able to acknowledge surface-level differences, e.g., vocabulary terminology, but less often discussed deeper cultural differences such as values and beliefs. It is my opinion based on analysis of the students' writings that all of the students wrote from ethnocentric perspectives. They claimed to be accepting of the differences between their home and host cultures, but often struggled to pinpoint said differences. Without recognition of differences between cultures' values and beliefs, it is not possible to cultivate an ethnorelative worldview.
That said, many of the student development outcomes that the University of Minnesota desires for its graduates overlap with outcomes desired by study abroad programs. The University of Minnesota's student development outcomes that overlap with the University's Learning Abroad Center's desired student outcomes include independence, self awareness, resilience, appreciation of differences, and tolerance of ambiguity. These are also the major outcomes discussed in the final essays by the students in this study.
In conclusion, while the students in this study struggled to articulate cultural differences between Australia and the United States, they did describe their own personal development in terms that match the desired development outcomes of both the University of Minnesota and of study abroad programs in general. These personal development outcomes are necessary steps toward building the basis of intercultural sensitivity development.