Living Abroad Makes Us More Civically Engaged (And Better Employees)


Research a number of years ago from Rice University found that time spent living abroad helped people not only understand their purpose in life but also to align their lives more effectively with that purpose.

The study found that a spell living abroad increases something the researchers call ‘self-concept clarity’, which in layman’s terms is our understanding and comfort with ourselves. The research found that living abroad encourages us to reflect on the norms and values of both our home and the host nation. This period of reflection helps people to better understand and define the values that reflect who they are.

“In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people,” they explain. “Our studies demonstrate that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity. The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book ‘The Travel Diary of a Philosopher,’ ‘The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.’ Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea.”


Research from the University of Chicago also shows that time spent abroad can also make us more civically engaged than those who don’t travel so much. The researchers found that when students travel overseas, they’re forced to navigate various socio-cultural norms, while also encountering new ideas, learning new languages, and meeting people from different cultures.

“Our hypothesis was that because study abroad removes you from what you’re familiar with and introduces you to ways in which other people live, that might encourage you to see things from their perspective,” the researchers explain. “This might change basic perspective-taking abilities and empathic processes that affect social attitudes and engagement.”

To put this hypothesis to the test, they surveyed a few hundred students from the University of Chicago, with the sample containing a mixture of those who had studied abroad, those who had not (and were not interested in doing so), and those who were interested in doing so but had not yet.

Students from each of these groups were required to complete several scales gauging their civic attitudes and also psychological qualities such as empathy and cultural competency, which the researchers believe underpin good civic behaviors.

Need for cognition

All of the groups scored on a similar level for “Need for Cognition”, which highlights a similar enjoyment of thinking. Indeed, the researchers explain that apart from overall cultural competency, there was no fundamental difference between students who wanted to study abroad and those who did not.

Even the civic attitudes of participants were broadly similar, with the majority of participants believing that participating in their community is a good thing. Where the students who had studied abroad stood out, however, is that they were more likely to act on those beliefs. This manifested itself in things like volunteering, where those who had studied abroad would actually volunteer rather than merely state that volunteering was important.

“Those students who go abroad report more often actually taking the actions to participate as opposed to just believing that they should participate,” the researchers explain.

Greater empathy

Those who had studied abroad also appeared to have greater empathy and humility than their peers. In other words, they were more aware of what they knew and understood the limits of their knowledge.

The researchers believe that this is likely to be because living abroad alters our sense of self, with this then triggering greater civic engagement.

“If you get out of your typical experiences, force yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable and just have a little bit of perspective change, that can greatly benefit who you are as a member of society,” they explain. “We have this tendency to be in this echo chamber in our lives; to be able to step outside of that can really benefit us.”

The best employees

This translates into good employees too, with research from the University of Buffalo highlighting that studying abroad boosts one’s employment prospects by 17%. This is perhaps due to what INSEAD’s Linda Brimm refers to as the “global cosmopolitan mindset”. She believes that the cosmopolitan mindset has three core elements to it:

  • A growth mindset – this is something examined in great depth by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, and can be characterized as a belief that intelligence can be developed, and a desire to learn new things, embrace new challenges, and generally persist in the face of setbacks.
  • A global mindset – which is defined as the ability to see and understand the world from multiple perspectives.
  • A creative mindset – the last characteristic is one that is defined by attitudes such as curiosity and a tolerance for ambiguity.

Studying overseas is by no means for everyone, however, with a recent study from Florida Atlantic University suggesting that the personality of individuals will go a long way towards determining whether those overseas deployments are successful or not.

“Oftentimes, expatriates have difficulty adjusting to this new environment. They can suffer poor well-being, experience conflict between their work life and family life, perform poorly and turnover,” the authors say. All expatriates are different. Maybe some are more adept at adjusting effectively where others aren’t. We wanted to understand what characteristics of expatriates make them more or less likely to adjust effectively.”

The data revealed that those who responded best to overseas assignments tended to be extroverts who were emotionally stable and open to new experiences. The authors suggest this is because extroverts are better at forming new social networks that help them with both the informational and emotional aspects of adjusting to a new culture. Emotional stability was also crucially important, however, as the whole experience of adapting to a new culture can be incredibly stressful.

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