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The value of a study abroad program for graduate students in psychology

Counseling psychology doctoral students participated in the Social Equity and Global Diversity Program, a study abroad program that took place in Ireland, hoping to gain a distinctive experience from studying in a foreign country

By Sarah Halawani Montes, Mike Karakashian, Chrisann Schiro-Geist, PhD, Emer Broadbent, JD, PhD, and Jennifer A. Drabowicz


Few would question the value of a Study Abroad experience for undergraduate students, especially as a motivator for retention and persistence, and its function as a life changing event. When it comes to graduate education, however, the utility of such academic effort for future psychologists are usually seen as limited. Why? If undergraduates can learn and grow from such experiences it seems reasonable that a structured experience of learning from a culturally diverse perspective about human issues and behavior would enhance the learning of graduate students in psychology.

Doctoral students looking to enhance their understanding of multiculturalism, participated in a program at the University of Memphis (UM), called Social Equity and Global Diversity, that brought them to a new understanding of persons from another country. The issue of time needed to pursue such an educational experience for busy doctoral students was addressed by disconnecting the travel time from the course credit. The students at UM made the trip over spring break, and then took time the next semester to do the "study" and take the credit. The issue of cost was addressed by exploration of Study Abroad subsidies for doctoral candidates. Such subsidies are available at UM for graduate as well as undergraduate students, but it was found that doctoral students rarely apply for them. Our doctoral students applied and received generous support for their trip.

A goal of APA is to promote international understanding among psychologists. A Study Abroad experience immerses our doctoral students in such experiences. It promotes their interest in participating in international congresses and presentations in the future. Those who participate share their learning with those who choose not to go. The experience at UM encouraged our Diversity Committee to promote the Study Abroad experience as a regular feature of the graduate program here. Here is what happened, as told by the doctoral students themselves.

The experience

During the week of spring break of 2008, doctoral students in counseling psychology participated in the Social Equity and Global Diversity Program, a study abroad program that took place in Ireland, hoping to gain a distinctive experience from studying in a foreign country. As doctoral students, we face a more demanding and a less flexible schedule, especially when pursuing anything not directly involved with our counseling psychology major. It is often hard to find any suitable time to participate in such valuable study abroad opportunities. As a result, we felt fortunate that the timing was very appropriate for participation. Furthermore, this brief but intense trip allowed us graduate credit for the invaluable opportunity to study abroad while ensuring no adverse interruption in our required formal studies.

The Social Equity and Global Diversity Program examined human rights, political, social and economic issues when dealing with the disadvantaged and special needs individuals from a global perspective. The program's focus added value to our academic experience and to our future work as counseling psychologists. Counseling psychology is a field that facilitates interpersonal functioning across the life span with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental and organizational concerns. It also encompasses sensitivity to multicultural issues. The growing demands of the 21st century necessitate that a psychologist be equipped to effectively understand, interact with, and advocate for individuals from culturally diverse backgrounds. This involves, among other things, an in-depth exposure to the implications of social parity and crosscultural relationship from the global perspective. Lectures, tours and discussion with local people gave us understanding of the native history and its impact on social and individual psychology. Our encounters enabled us to deeply consider the social and psychological implications of historical and systemic agents on Irish and American cultural development.

Part of the program emphasized learning about Ireland's historical events firsthand. A critical chapter of Ireland's rich history was the Potato Famine which spanned a little more than a century from 1845 to 1947. More than one million people died of starvation or emigrated and an additional 50,000 people succumbed to diseases such as typhus, scurvy and dysentery (Irish Potato Famine and Trade History, 1996). In an attempt to flee the oppression, starvation and disease that gripped Ireland, the Irish people became the country's greatest export. Within a decade, the population of Ireland plummeted from over eight million to less than six million (Irish Potato Famine and Trade History, 1996). The overpopulated subsistence farmers of Ireland were forced to export corn, wheat, barley and oats to Great Britain, leaving the potato as the sole dietary staple for both the people and their animals (Irish Potato Famine and Trade History, 1996). While other regions such as the United States, Southern Canada, and Western Europe were able to turn to alternative food sources, the Irish were dependent solely on the potato resulting in the progressively disastrous blight and famine for the people of Ireland.

Another significant part of the program involved lectures and discussions with local people. We were very privileged to meet with Tommy McKearney, an Irish Republican, socialist, former hunger striker, and a volunteer with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In short, McKearney spent a total of 53 days on hunger strike in the early 1980's, and, according to a doctor at the time, had only a few hours left to live when the strike was called off (McKearney, 2008). It was very interesting to hear his perspective on Ireland's history and to know about the physiological, emotional, and psychological effects that the hunger strike had on him. In one of his recent articles, McKearney stated:

"…people again ask me what type of men offered themselves for such a desperate undertaking. My answer is not to answer. Most have made their minds up already. The real question is what type of conditions brought young men to that degree of uncompromising desperation. Answer that and you'll understand more than the Northern Irish conflict" (McKearney, 2008).

Through university contacts, we were also able to meet Senator Noel Coonan, a member of Oireachtas, the Irish National Parliament. Senator Coonan walked us through the parliament's history and recounted some of the country's politics. In addition, we were provided the opportunity to meet with Dr. Alan Bruce, Director of Universal Learning Systems, who discussed the importance of incorporating equality and cultural diversity training in different fields, including the Irish national police force.

One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Ireland was the tour of Kilmainham Gaol, a former prison in Dublin which has since been converted into a museum. The building and tour provided an exceptional experience and insight into how life was 150 to 200 years ago for the prisoners. Offenses that commonly led to incarceration ranged from murder, larceny and rape to stealing bread, turnips or a coat (Lyden, 2008). During the Potato Famine, life in prison was marginally better than life outside (Lyden, 2008). We learned that minor offenses were often committed purely to have guaranteed shelter and food while imprisoned. The visit to Kilmainham Gaol was nothing short of eye-opening concerning the history of Ireland and its people. The combined experiences of attending tours and lectures, meeting political activists and locals, and actually living with an Irish family enhanced a more comprehensive understanding of how contemporary culture and issues surfaced in Ireland, why some people hold particular perspectives and opinions, and why there is enormous national pride inherent in the people of Ireland.


Study abroad in Ireland was an incredible experience. It somehow feels trivial to try to describe in words the enormous benefit gained from this endeavor because so much of its potency was derived from the encounter itself. The week-long trip served to supplement our graduate education in a way no classroom course or practicum could have. We experienced an immense appreciation for the Irish cultural perspective on our venture.This exposure to an alternative cultural point of view heightened our awareness to the significant influence of systems on human psychology.

Although our programs of study provide some of the critical components to achieve this end, there is no better way to explore the depth of these important issues than in a foreign country. Exposure to foreign cultural norms and values enables us to look at the psychological ramifications from a cross-cultural perspective. We are better able to examine our own culturally-relevant psychological influences after being immersed in another society.

It is becoming ever more imperative to have multicultural competencies in order to serve as an ethical professional in our field. Graduate study abroad served to strengthen our faculties in this important area. Ireland was an ideal place to examine these vital issues because it has experienced the tragic implications of social inequality and cultural misunderstanding. This opportunity afforded us the privilege of learning first-hand about the psychology of these concerns and provided unique perspectives on the human condition. The availability of an increased number of study abroad opportunities will help students to further deepen the already rich training available in graduate psychology. Study abroad can expose psychologists-in-training to a broader world view, thereby allowing for further understanding of ourselves and the diverse people we work with in our careers.