PhD thesis summary

Innovations in transport and information communication technology have led to an ever expanding global perspective and playing field, for both business and citizens. Educational institutes play an important role in preparing students for this new reality. One way of doing this is for students to engage in educational travel experiences. Indeed, over the past two decades increasing numbers of students participated in study abroad programs, study tours, international internships and relatively new short-term programs such as international research projects. Yet, at the same time, globalization seems to have reduced some of the traditional benefits of educational travel, as the challenge of adapting to a different cultural environment has become easier than has been in the past. Equally, there is a need to reconsider the competencies that educational travel should develop, as there is a noticeable shift towards pointing out the professional relevance of these experiences. The aim of this research was to work towards a competence framework and investigate how the learning of competencies was related to overcoming cultural differences. Based on these findings, implications for learning programs were formulated.


Due to the fragmented research field, the first contribution of this research was to conduct a literature review. The next step was to develop a competence framework for educational travel competencies, which includes both cross-cultural competencies, management competencies and personal development. This framework was based on the literature review, but given the lack of agreement among researchers, I used two additional approaches to strengthen its validity. First, I did research on general theories related to learning and competence development, with a special focus on experiential learning and schema theory. Second, I searched for commonly used competence frameworks in the related fields of management and expatriation. Finally, my research used the empirical studies on the international internship and the international research project to reflect upon the theoretical concepts. The outcomes are shown below.


During the research project several contextual factors were uncovered which influence the learning of competencies. Individual factors that significantly influence competence learning of students are motivation and previous travel experiences. Relevant contextual factors are length, local interaction, controlled experience and cultural distance. A research gap was identified with regard to the concept of cultural distance. My empirical analysis confirmed that cultural distance still is a relevant concept in the context of educational travel experiences, illustrating that persistent differences in cultures still exist despite the  influence of global technological systems and economic development. The concept of cultural distance could be explained with the help of value dimensions put forward by Hofstede, Inglehart and Malewski, and well as with the help of the awareness of different cultural layers which interact with each other.


Though a popular phenomenon nowadays, very little research has been published on the theme of educational travel. Articles have appeared that investigated the learning effects of study abroad and study tours, but much less research is available on other segments. Recently it has become more important to point out the professional relevance of educational travel experiences and recruiters increasingly look for extracurricular activities that embody some practical work experience. Also, more short-term educational travel experiences are increasingly in demand by students. In this light, I decided to investigate empirically the competence development for the international internship and the international research project, as well as the influence of  cultural distance.


A survey among 967 international AIESEC interns around the world showed that that they generally believe to learn significant cross-cultural competencies and made significant progress in terms of personal development, but the benefits were less marked for students travelling to low income countries, from low to high power distance or collectivistic countries. In particular during these transitions it became harder for students to appreciate the host culture and interact with the locals. This group of students also acquired fewer management competencies on all dimensions: technical, intrapersonal and interpersonal.


A qualitative study among 116 participants in Rotterdam’s International Research Project over the past 5 years addressed the most important competencies that students learn in each category (cross-cultural competencies, management competencies and personal development). Students made significant gains in their management competencies. However, these Dutch-based students only moderately improved their cross-cultural competencies. Students who worked in multi-cultural teams or travelled to historically Catholic and communist parts of Europe together with Asia and Africa, fared much better in this respect. Personal development also occurred as intensive teamwork forced students to become more self-aware, independent and flexible.


I also used the information gathered through the literature review and empirical analyses to get a better overview of how the different types of educational travel compare to each other in terms of competence development. The international research project seems to provide fewer gains in terms of cross-cultural competencies and personal development than studying abroad or an international internship. However, the project seems to match well with the demand from business students for shorter term international learning experiences which have a relatively high professional value.


In general, both the literature review and my empirical studies confirm that students perceive to learn a significant amount of competencies during educational travel but that this learning is sometimes hampered by a lack of realistic judgment due to young age, the short duration of the experience, retreat in an expat bubble, or subpar job factors. As a consequence, an improved support structure would help students to get more out of their overseas experience. One form of support concerns the design of a learning program which is the focus of this research project. Research shows that the learning of cross cultural competencies requires a delicate balance between providing students with support to ‘bridge the gap’ between the schemas of the host home and host country, and letting them deal on their own with the mental tensions that arise, in order to boost feelings of independence. This said, self-actualization learning patterns can only begin when ‘lower-level’ needs, such as feelings of safety, belonging and esteem are fulfilled. Hence, more cross-cultural training may well be needed to establish a foundation for students traveling to culturally challenging low-income countries.


However, prior to traveling to the host country, it can sometimes be difficult to make students receptive to training regarding the tacit concepts of cross-cultural competencies and personal development. As a result, reflective learning during and after the experience becomes important for the student to fully understand the experience and benefit from it. There are several benefits of reflective learning. First, reflective learning exercises can help students to make sense of concepts which seem to be rather vague prior to the overseas experience, such as the concept of culture and ‘dry’ historical phenomena such as communism. Second, reflective learning can point students to competencies and personal development topics which they tend to overlook such as identifying and analyzing best practices or international business opportunities. Third, reflective learning could help students to more realistically assess their learning of competencies, for example with the help of Bennett’s developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. Reflection on management competencies is perhaps in particularly important for foreign interns who worked in organizations with a high power distance. This exercise may compensate for the limited feedback they might have received from colleagues and supervisors. A reflection assignment can not only benefit the student during his educational travel, but also during the re-entry phase in the home country. This is the time when a student synthesizes his or her experience in the host country into everyday life, reflecting on the similarities and differences with home and any personal changes that may have occurred. There is always a danger that returning students fail to leverage their new insights due to the pressure of a familiar environment and role expectations.

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