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  • American Identity in Study Abroad Students: Contrasts, Changes, Correlates
  • Victor Savicki (bio) and Eric Cooley (bio)

People who encounter a foreign culture face many challenges in the process of adjusting and adapting to it. For those who remain in contact with that culture over time, such as study abroad students, the adjustment demands may occur on many different levels. Ward and her colleagues (Ward, 2001; Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001) postulate an ABC model of acculturation tapping the affective, behavioral, and cognitive levels. This article focuses on the cognitive level, particularly the students’ social identification as American.

An important aspect of study abroad students’ social identification is rooted in how they define themselves with regard to their sense of belonging to and preference for the country from which they embark on their study abroad. National identity (in the case of this study, American identity) has implications both for student well-being and their potential ability to adjust to a foreign culture (Phinney & Ong, 2007). The place of American identity within the range of outcomes of or precursors to intercultural exposure has yet to be clarified. Employing a new measure of this concept, we contrast the level, configuration, and change of American identity in study abroad students compared to those students who remained at home to clarify how this specific form of social identification fits within the broader nomological net of concepts that impact both college student development and study abroad.

Psychological Identity

Developmental psychology has addressed several issues of identity, especially as it relates to psychological tasks of adolescence (Adams, Gullotta, & Montemayor, 1992; Cornbleth, 2003; Moshman, 1999). Since the vast majority of study abroad students falls within the developmental age period of late adolescence (18 to mid-20s), these theories and findings are salient for understanding student reactions to exposure to a foreign culture. According to Erikson’s (1968) ego identity model, psychological identity refers to a subjective feeling of consistency and continuity of self across situations that provides a sense of stability and serves as a guide for making key life choices. A stable identity develops over [End Page 339] time through a process of experimentation, reflection, and observation that peaks in adolescence and may continue into early adulthood. Marcia (1980) conceptualized identity formation as consisting of both exploration of identity issues and an affective and cognitive commitment to aspects of identity. In a two-by-two model, Marcia indicated that both high exploration and high commitment are indicators of achieved identity (the developmental goal), whereas, low exploration and low commitment were indicative of identity diffusion. High commitment with low exploration indicated identity foreclosure, a premature solidifying of unexamined identity, whereas, low commitment with high exploration indicated an identity moratorium, during which active processing and reflection hopefully set the stage for later achieved identity.

The extent to which identity is defined at the individual level or through social identification with in-groups may depend on the social context (Frey & Tropp, 2006); that is, when individuals are placed into cross-cultural contexts, their group membership (i.e., being an American) may trigger an emphasis on that level of social identification. Several conceptualizations of cultural social identification have been proposed. In general, such conceptualizations view social identification as containing several components: feelings of belonging to a culture, centrality of cultural membership in one’s identity, positive and negative evaluations of one’s culture or aspects of culture, and practice of cultural customs and traditions (Ward, 2001). As an individual from one culture is immersed in another culture, an acculturation process begins that impacts that individual’s social identification.

On the one hand, the contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006) suggests that cross-cultural contact might open more exploration of identity as students learn of alternate ways of living. On the other hand, prejudice, anxiety about contacts with a different cultural group, and fear of being negatively stereotyped as an American may sidetrack exploration (Frey & Tropp, 2006; Stephan & Stephan, 1985). As Ward (2001) indicates, the development of identity in cross-cultural situations does not necessarily follow a linear or unidirectional course. In addition, identity issues may not be unidimensional. Several identities may be available for consideration or reconsideration. College student advisors and...


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pp. 339-349
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