- Heritage Seekers, Identity, and Study Abroad: A Phenomenological Exploration
Study abroad participation for US college students has been on the rise throughout the past two decades. According to the Open Doors: 2018 Fast Facts report (Institute of International Education, 2018), 1.8% of US undergraduate students studied abroad, and study abroad participation overall rose to almost 333,000 students, during the 2016–2017 academic year. Research suggests that students choose programs because of location, costs, available courses, and heritage (Angulo, 2008; Eder, Smith, & Pitts, 2010; Moreno, 2009). As more US students study abroad, it is necessary to continue to explore the learning and developmental outcomes associated with these experiences and the reasons students choose to study abroad.
Traveling abroad immerses students into a new environment where their identity is destabilized (Kinginger, 2013). As part of this destabilization, Block (2007) suggested that students are confronted with challenges while abroad and often retreat to their home country’s cultural norms (e.g., spending time with their compatriots rather than locals). In contrast, Angulo (2008) found that identifying with the host country’s culture led to personal growth and change. Given the scarcity of research on these identity negotiations for heritage seekers—students who study abroad in areas connected to their cultural heritage (Diversity Abroad, 2019)—further research [End Page 251] is warranted to document their experiences concerning identity development during their abroad experiences.
Studying abroad can be a life-changing experience for students and possibly a reattachment to roots for those with a heritage connection (Moreno, 2009). On the one hand, students who study abroad in an area that is representative of their heritage are likely to be familiar with host cultures, may feel reconnected with their heritage identity, and may be more integrated into the host community (Moreno, 2009; Petrucci, 2007). On the other hand, negative experiences with the host culture may lead to US students’ strengthening their American identity or other parts of their identities (Angulo, 2008; Block, 2007; Moreno, 2009).
With the increase of study abroad participation, much can be learned about the way identity is shaped by experiences abroad. As such, we examined the experiences of heritage seekers studying internationally and how having a heritage connection influenced identity salience for the participants. The research questions guiding this study were:
1. In what ways, if any, does identity salience change for students who study abroad in areas tied to their heritage?
2. What factors, if any, influence changes in identity salience of students who study abroad in an area that is representative of their heritage?
Bronfenbrenner’s (1995) ecological process–person–context–time (PPCT) model and Abes, Jones, and McEwen’s (2007) reconceptualized model of multiple dimensions of identity (MMDI) framed the study. The PPCT model takes an ecological approach to understanding how an environment can affect one’s development. Bronfenbrenner created the model to explore principles that applied to phenomena not only across time and space, but through people who have widely varying characteristics and, as a result, respond differently to their environment. In addition to the environment, understanding the different facets of students’ multiple and intersecting identities was essential to this study. Abes et al. introduced the reconceptualized MMDI that illustrates individual meaning making with the influence of context on the perception and salience of one’s identities. The reconceptualized MMDI also focuses on how identity is fluid and may depend on contextual influences. Together these frameworks shaped our study as the constructs of environment, time, identity, and identity salience guided every step from the research questions to data analysis.
We conducted this study using a hermeneutic phenomenological research design, which is used to interpret how humans make meaning interacting with the world (Moustakas, 1994). Given our interest in how heritage seekers make meaning of their experiences abroad regarding identity salience, such an approach allowed participants to reflect and make meaning out of their lived experiences, and allowed us, as the researchers, to interpret their experiences.
The 8 participants were study abroad alumni from 1 large, public 4-year university in the Midwestern United States. Participants self-identified as heritage seekers...