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Gender Observations and Study Abroad: How Students Reconcile Cross-Cultural Differences Related to Gender
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Gender Observations and Study Abroad:
How Students Reconcile Cross-Cultural Differences Related to Gender

Increasingly, global understanding is part of the core mission of institutions of higher education (Bollag, 2004). The National Association for State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC Taskforce on International Education, 2004) issued A Call to Leadership, urging university presidents to focus on internationalization as a way to enhance, broaden, and enliven academic learning, discovery, and engagement. Many colleges and universities recognize the need for globally literate citizens to meet the demands of an increasingly interdependent world and see study abroad as a way to develop students' cross-cultural skills (Bollag).

Paralleling administrators' acknowledgment of the importance of educating students for an increasingly interconnected world is students' increasing desire for international experiences. When students choose to study abroad, many do so to gain cross-cultural understanding and language proficiency or to satisfy a desire to travel and to have fun (Carlson, Burn, Useem, & Yachimowicz, 1990). At their best, study abroad programs promote cross-cultural understanding so that students can become citizens of the world (NASULGC Taskforce on International Education, 2004). Ideally, as students become global citizens, they gain exposure to a variety of diverse cultures, fostering an appreciation for and comfort with multiple perspectives (Nussbaum, 1997). Although there is some evidence that students develop cross-cultural understanding through study abroad (Carlson & Widaman, 1988; Kitsantas & Meyers, 2001, Rea, 2003), many programs continue to provide students with limited tools for cross-cultural interpretation, assuming that the immersion experience alone will be sufficient for students to learn about other cultures. This approach fails to acknowledge that students bring their own socially constructed identities and cultural assumptions to a host country (Twombly, 1995). These identities and assumptions influence and in some cases may distort the ways in which students approach, endure, and reflect on their experiences.

Oftentimes undergraduate students' study abroad experiences coincide with identity formation in late adolescence (Davis, 2002; Erikson, 1968; Jones, 1997; Jones & McEwen, 2000; Josselson, 1987, 1996; McEwen, 1996). Not only does study abroad serve to enhance students' understanding of other cultures, it may be influential to the formation of self. Understanding how study abroad participants interpret their cross-cultural experiences can provide valuable information to anyone interested in fostering the development of students' identities and their understanding of difference.

Although there are many important areas in which to conduct research regarding how students' cultural assumptions and identities inform their cross-cultural understanding, for the purpose of this study the focus is on examining assumptions related to gender. [End Page 360] Gender is the social assignment of masculine and feminine characteristics to one's biological sex, in a cultural context (Grewal & Kaplan, 2002). When students study abroad, many do so having an understanding of gender only from their home culture. Consequently, it is difficult for students to grasp the notion of gender as socially assigned because their gender assumptions often have been unchallenged since birth (Grewal & Kaplan). Students' sometimes narrow and tacit definition of gender limits the way in which they see the world. However, when in a different country, most things feel new and different, so there may be less resistance to examining the subtle or distinct differences in the way gender is assigned and defined (Grewal & Kaplan).

The purpose of the current study was to gain a better understanding of how gender was observed by a group of students participating in a 3-week study abroad program entitled, Food, Environment and Social Systems, which took place in Australia and New Zealand in May 2006. I examined the messages students received about gender in Australia and New Zealand, whether the students were cognizant of these messages, and how they made meaning of the messages in light of their own gender identity.

Review of the Literature

Two areas of literature inform the current study. The first explores identity development as a fluid process, influenced by contextual and sociocultural factors. The second examines emerging research on the influence of gender on study abroad.

Identity Development

Research about identity development has evolved to encompass more diversity than the early formulations by such scholars as Erikson (1968), which was predicated on samples of White...