Sample: Academic Research Report by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

This is a paper I wrote a few years ago, based on a small scale research study I did about study abroad programs, for my Postgraduate Diploma I did at Birmingham City University, leading to my MA in Education.

Effects of the study abroad experience on students’ self-description

by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly


In the summers of 2002 and 2006, I was privileged to teach on Semester at Sea™ (Appendix A), one of numerous study abroad programs run by American universities. As with many shared experiences among a close group—500 people on a ship—over a finite time period—65 days at sea—it is life-changing for everyone on board.

Before they embark, students read in the literature from the Institute for Shipboard Education, which runs the program, descriptions from previous voyagers about how their lives were different afterwards, how they saw themselves differently.

Do they?

For last summer’s voyage I created a Writing for Media module. The assignments were based on those in a course at Florida International University (FIU). Writing Strategies for Mass Media, required in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at FIU, was designed by two faculty members who had previously worked for the Miami Herald.

‘Not a trip to the inverted pyramids’ (Appendix B), the module requires students to write weekly three-page essays on a series of topics in a specific order: love (abstract), an orange (concrete), an individual, a group, family, another individual, a writing implement (concrete), and love (abstract) again. Students struggle with the ambiguity of these assignments, but their writing does improve.

Many faculty have commented on how personal the essays become. Descriptions of the smell of the oranges Aunt Cecilia would peel in the morning, of recurring nightmares since a neighborhood was devastated by hurricane Andrew, of family members forgiven for their sins—these are more revealing of the students’ self -learning than a press release or a news story.

Given the life-changing nature of the Semester at Sea™ experience, a variation on this module, employing the same types of purposely ambiguous assignments, was created for this voyage.

Would it be possible to determine through the students’ writing whether they had undergone any personal change as a result of their experiences in seven Asian countries?

Review of the Literature

  1. Study abroad programs’ effects on students

Two decades ago 1300 study abroad programs sponsored by American universities attracted 10% of all American undergrads (Cash, 1993). This has increased significantly. Ten years ago, Thomas and McMahon (1998) reported that the ‘documented number of Americans abroad approaches 80,000’ (58).

More recent figures show that 143,590 American students studied abroad in 2000-01, an increase of 61% in the previous five years, and 11% over 1999-2000. 90% go for one semester or less. 70% said their college should offer study abroad, and half expected their university to (Jenkins, 2002).

This trend, combined with American professors’ need to publish to secure their jobs through tenure, has led to a proliferation of research about study abroad programs. Most conclude: ‘The data indicated that the program enhanced cultural awareness and personal development’ (Black and Duhon, 2006, 140).

Since 1995, many studies have used the Kelley and Meyers Cross Cultural-Adaptability Inventory (CCAI), from their book of that title. Their 50 questions use a six-point Likert scale. Kitsantas and Meyers (2001) state,

The four dimensions of the test, Emotional Resilience, Flexibility/Openness, Perceptual Acuity and Personal Autonomy, were derived from a review of the theoretical and empirical literature, as well as a survey of cross-cultural practitioners, such as trainers and consultants (8).

They concluded: ‘Study abroad programs may then be beneficial for college students to function in a cross-cultural environment’ (13).

It may be counter-intuitive to find a student or faculty member who comes back from such a program less culturally aware. If we assume that will be the most basic outcome of the experience, what other learning outcomes can be measured in a writing module taught during one of these programs?

Many studies have been concerned with the personal, self-reflective process that occurs.

Bakalis and Joiner (2004) compared Australian business students who did and did not sign up for exchange programs and found that ‘Personal development was cited as a [perceived] benefit by more exchange students (e.g. “discover my strengths and weaknesses,” and “confront my fears,” “test yourself in another country”)’ than non-exchange students (289).

Surveying students at St. Mary’s women’s college, Cash (1993) based his questions on the College’s goals for these programs. Respondents used a four-point scale from ‘None’ to ‘Great’ to rate how much growth they experienced towards each goal. An average of 80.9% reported experiencing a ‘great’ amount of growth in ‘greater self-awareness,’ among the highest of all the rankings.

Many universities have developed standards related to self-development that study abroad must achieve. For example, Missouri Southern University uses five criteria to evaluate their programs. In addition to the practical outcomes of language proficiency and career advantage, they equally value empathy and ‘cultural and self-awareness leading to personal growth’ (Gray et al, 2002, 49).

2. Benefits of writing for students in study abroad programs

Writing about experiences is often used for self-reflective learning. Mofidi et al (2003) had dental students write three- to five-page essays about an incident during the community-based part of their course, focusing on the personal and professional implications of their thoughts and feelings. Their reasoning was that, ‘By reflecting on their experience students develop personally and professionally…Reflection can take place through writing or speaking about service experiences’ (Mofidi et al, 2003, 516).

Writing is particularly common in study abroad programs, ranging from encouraging blogging to complete novels.

One of the most common textbooks recommended to American study abroad students is Writing across culture: An introduction to study abroad and the writing process by Kenneth Wagner and Tony Magistrale (2003), in its fifth edition.

In her foreword to their book, Sheila Spear, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, points out, ‘While students write in their pre-departure statements that their goal is to “learn another culture,” they will report when they return that they have learned most about themselves’ (xii).

Wagner and Magistrale see writing as a tool for learning and self-discovery as much as it is a means for demonstrating what is already known. The process of writing is similar to the experience of living in a new country; both activities are acts of exploration. Composing is always connected to discovery—of language, self, others, society, the world (xiv).

Speaking directly to the travelling student, they stress the effect of writing on self-identity. They advise that the experience ‘challenges and changes your very definition of selfhood’ (7-8), and, ‘You will also begin to view yourself from a new and sometimes startling perspective’ (24).

They describe categories of writing first delineated by James Britton in 1977:  poetic, transactional and expressive. The first includes creative writing and is not relevant here. However, Wagner and Magistrale combine transactional writing—‘clear credible, and conventional writing’ used for reports, etc.—and expressive writing—writing to oneself to ‘understand better the person who did the writing’—into their own category of ‘analytical writing.’ They claim, ‘Students who write analytically about their intercultural experience are more self-conscious about their life abroad, [and] appreciative of the ways in which they have changed’ (32).

3.  Use of content analysis in evaluating learning in students’ writing

Given that students learn about themselves during study abroad programs, and that writing encourages this, how can we make use of a writing module during a study abroad program to determine what students learn about themselves?  Content analysis.

Pennebaker et al (2003) describe this method ‘as simple, reliable, fast, and relatively inexpensive’ (569). It has been employed in many ways to determine students’ learning.

Mofidi et al (2003) used the technique on their dental students’ essays. Their methodology was primarily qualitative and typical of the process:  Reading through each essay, preparing a summary including ‘commonly repeated themes and excerpts from the essays to support the themes. Next, a more comprehensive content review of the data, which included line by line analysis and coding of essays’ (517). Their list of ‘themes and their meanings’ was then analysed for sub-themes. Categories were identified and those that appeared in more than 20% of the essays were analysed.

They point out two limitations of this technique:  ‘First, interpretation of qualitative data is inherently subjective.’ To overcome this, they used multiple coders. ‘Second, it is possible that students may have provided socially desirable responses’ (522).

Kusnick (2002) had her geology students write stories to determine their misconceptions about rock formations. She used quantitative content analysis to identify 13 categories and then compared their first assignment to three homework assignments.

Herek (1987) used content analysis of student essays to ‘effectively assess attitude functions’ (285), specifically attitudes to lesbians and gay men. In Hanrahan and Isaacs’ (2001) study of students’ feelings about self and peer assessment, they used purely qualitative content analysis to identify raw data themes which were then grouped into higher order themes. To overcome the subjectivity of this technique, they also employed more than one coder.

One of the most comprehensive analyses of the uses of content analysis is found in James Pennebaker, Matthias Mehl, and Kate Niederhoffer’s ‘Psychological aspects of natural language use: Our words, our selves’ in the 2003 Annual Review of Psychology. Stating that, ‘The ways people use words convey a great deal of information about themselves, their audience, and the situations they are in’ (548), they survey how various techniques have been used on students’ essays as well as with writings created during psychotherapy. Their focus is on ‘the methods and recent findings on word use rather than language per se:  The styles in which people use words rather than the content of what they say’ (548). They conclude, ‘The words people choose when talking or writing may betray their thoughts and feelings’ (572).

Looking at a large number of studies, Pennebaker et al found them to be reliable because ‘Word choice is stable within a very short time frame’ (555). Studying students’ writing, they found ‘good internal consistency (across text type)…Across several studies, word use in written language emerged as reliable across time, topic and text source’ (555).

They describe three methodologies —judge-based, word pattern analysis and word count. Mofidi et al’s (2003) and Hanrahan and Isaacs (2001) employed judge-based methods, identifying and coding themes.

Word pattern analyses ‘mathematically detect “bottom up” how words co-vary across large samples of text’ (p549). Word count strategies ‘are based on the assumption that the words people use convey psychological information over and above their literal meaning and independent of their semantic context’ (550). This overcomes Mofidi et al’s (2003) concern about ‘socially desirable response’ (522).

Given that writing during study abroad programs can help students with their personal development, it was decided to use content analysis, including word count strategies, to determine how their self-description had changed.


  1. Initial survey of students’ travel experience

At the first class meeting, students were given questionnaires (Appendix C) to fill out, asking about their previous foreign travel experience. This was to determine the range of exposure to different cultures represented. 15 students began the class, but one dropped out and is not included in the sample.

2. Description of writing assignments

In keeping with the philosophy of the original module, each assignment was stated verbally in class the same way:  ‘Communicate to me about…’ (Appendix D).

The first assignment, at the first class meeting, was ‘Communicate to me about yourself.’ No other guidance was given except the parameters of writing two double-spaced pages. During the module, students became accustomed to the inherent ambiguity of this wording. The last assignment, given during the trip back across the Pacific, was, once again, ‘Communicate to me about yourself.’ Two hard copies of each assignment were requested so the instructor could grade one and save one for the future content analysis. One student never turned in a second copy of one assignment, and so he was eliminated from the data; therefore N=13.

Consequently, the content used was intended to be a second draft. The student had (hopefully) proofread and revised it, then submitted it, but had not yet received any feedback. Although only the instructor would read each assignment, students were aware that (a) they were writing for media, (b) the instructor would highlight passages from their work which they were invited, but not required, to read out in class and (c) they were invited to submit their work to the videographer and the yearbook for publication. These were not introspective journals. They fit into Wagner and Magistrale’s category of analytical writing, combing both transactional and expressive.

3.  Content analysis of the essays

Because of the small sample size—26 two-page essays—different types of content analysis were carried out in a relatively short period of time. All analyses were done manually because electronic versions were not available. Two samples of color-coded essays, from the least and most traveled students, are included in Appendix E.

a.  Proportion of sentences which mention self, others and places

Pennebaker et al (2003) explain the difference between style and content with a simple example.

How two people may make a simple request:  ‘Would it be possible for you to pass me the salt?’ and ‘Pass the salt.’ Both express the speaker’s desire for salt and direct the listener’s action. However, the two utterances also reveal different features of the interactants’ relationship, the speaker’s personality, and perhaps the way the speaker understands himself (548).

When directed, ‘Communicate to me about yourself,’ each writer has many choices.

Two pages describing oneself as fun, friendly, etc. is not only bad writing, it reveals a self-involvement which exposure to other cultures should minimize.

To determine how much the students’ self-description referred to themselves and how much to other people, and how that changed, the sentences in each essay were counted. This varied from 25 to 76, but the raw numbers only give a base for analysis of each essay.

After this count, each phrase that referred to the essay’s author was highlighted in green. The sentences that contained any green were counted and a percentage was calculated. Next the sentences that only referred to the author were counted and a percentage was calculated.

When asked to describe oneself, some people might begin, I am the oldest in my family, describing themselves through their relationship with others.

All phrases which referred to other people were highlighted in yellow. The sentences that contained any yellow were counted and a percentage was calculated. Next, the sentences that only referred to others, not the essay’s author, were counted and a percentage was calculated.

Sentences which mentioned specific people—my family or the Japanese—as opposed to generic concepts, such as people or others, were counted and a percentage was calculated.

Some people, however, might describe themselves by saying, I’m from Pittsburgh, or I’ve been to Asia.

Phrases which included places were highlighted in orange. The sentences containing orange were counted and a percentage was calculated. Next, the number of mentions of foreign places versus those of the student’s home country (the US, but, for one student, also Germany) were counted.

b.  Word counts

Pennebaker et al (2003) emphasize that ‘Word count strategies count words within a given text sample irrespective of the context in which the words occur’ (554). They particularly recommend counting commonly used words—pronouns, articles, conjunctions, etc.—which are referred to as particles, adding, ‘Many of the more content-heavy words—nouns, regular verbs, and modifiers—have not yielded many consistent social or psychological effects’ (570).

Pennebaker et al are adamant about the importance of particles. ‘There are fewer than 200 commonly used particles, yet they account for over half of the words we use’ (570).

Citing studies of how word choice changes during emotional upheaval, they state, ‘Pronouns may be an overlooked linguistic dimension…Pronouns are markers of self versus group identity (e.g., I versus we) as well as of the degree to which people focus on or related to others. Pronouns may provide insight into people’s level of social integration as well as self-focus’ (569).

They emphasize the point:

‘Particles serve as the glue that holds content words together. But particles are more than mere glue. They are referential words that have tremendous social and psychological meaning. To use a pronoun requires the speaker and listener to share a common knowledge of who the referent is…Particles, then, can be construed as having tremendous social implications…Pronouns are among the most revealing. Use of first person singular, for example, is associated with age, sex, depression, illness, and more broadly, self-focus. First person plural can variously be a marker of group identity, and, on occasion, a sign of emotional distancing. Second and third person pronouns are, by definition, markers to suggest that the speaker is socially engaged or aware (570).’

Word count techniques can clearly be justified in this context.

First, the number of appearances of the words home and world were circled in black and counted.

Next all mentions of the first person singular—me, my, myself, mine—were circled in green and counted. The pronoun I was eliminated because overuse of this word was discussed in the second class meeting, and students were instructed to edit their copy to reduce the number of I’s.

Next, each appearance of the first person plural—we, our, ours, ourselves—was circled in blue and tallied.

Finally all uses of the second and third person referring to humans (not objects)—you, your, yours, yourself, he, she, they, his, hers, theirs, himself, herself, themselves—were circled in bright pink. Second and third person were tallied separately, in case this information would be needed in the future, but are presented here as a combined total.

An additional tally was made comparing the ten females’ essays to the three males’ to compare gender differences.

4.  Limitations

One limitation of this method is that no second coder was available to perform the same tests. To overcome this, the counts were repeated by the researcher. The word counts were performed by starting at the end of each essay to increase objectivity.

The sample size was small and limited to American students going to Asia for the first time on Semester at Sea™. However, the breakdown of the class roughly resembles the profile of a typical American study abroad students.


  1. Initial survey of students’ travel experiences

63% of American students who study abroad are women (Wagner and Magistrale, 2003), and even the considerably diverse University of California system has found a clear under-representation of minorities, compared to their campus population (Thomas and McMahon, 1998).

Predictably, the Semester at Sea™ student body is predominantly white, American, upper middle class and female (Appendix F). Of the four males in the class, two identified themselves as African-American. One female was half Thai. Their average age was 20.6. 12 were born and raised in the US; one grew up on an American military base in Germany and one emigrated from Israel to California at age six with his family. Most of the family members they grew up with were born in the US.

Nine different states were identified as home, and ten students listed their hometown as the same as their birthplace.

Only two attended the same university, the University of Virginia, which had just taken over sponsorship of the program. Their courses of study (referred to as a ‘major’ in the US) were widely distributed, with many having double majors. Three were studying business, three marketing communications, and two psychology; the rest showed no overlap. Most plan to graduate in 2007.

All were full-time students, probably reflecting their generally high household income level, although eight work part-time.

Jenkins reports (2002) that in the 1999-2000 academic year, only 8.2% of course enrolments in the US were in foreign-language classes, and Spanish accounted for half. 98% of incoming freshmen had studied a foreign language in high school; 60% said they would in college.

The students in this sample reflect the same background. Spanish was the most common (nine students), followed by French (seven); only two claimed to have never studied a foreign language. Most indicated that they did not consider themselves fluent.

Contrary to the stereotype of Americans, all but one, LB, had traveled outside the States before. Most had been with their families to Mexico, Canada, Europe or exotic holiday locations. A few had been on school study abroad programs, but none had been on Semester at Sea™ before. Interestingly, none had been to any of the countries we would be visiting.

Three had lived in another country; in addition to JW who was raised in Germany and OB who emigrated from Israel, CK had lived in Germany, France and Russia for various lengths of time.

Also contradicting the American stereotype, only LB had received her first passport for this journey. On average, each had had a passport for about ten years and two reported they had received their first ‘before I can remember.’

2.  Content analysis of the essays

a.  Proportion of sentences referring to self, others and places

By comparing the proportion of the sentences in each essay that referred to themselves (Table 1), we can see that from the beginning to the end of the voyage, this went down an average of 4.3 points, from 95.2% to 90.9%. Even 91% is a high percentage of references to one’s self; however, the assignment was, ‘Communicate to me about yourself.’

The proportion of sentences that referred only to the author, leaving out other people altogether, went down even farther, an average of almost 11 points (Table 1).

The proportion of sentences that mention others went up slightly, 2.4 points; the proportion of sentences that mentioned only others, leaving out the self altogether, went up less, 1.4 points (Table 2).

More interesting results were found by comparing references to places when asked to describe oneself. This proportion went up from an average of 23.2% to 37.7%, a change of 14.5 points (Table 3). Although the proportion of sentences that mentioned places at home went down only marginally (0.2 points), the percentage that mentioned places away from home shot up by 19.4 points, the largest change of any of the comparisons (Table 4).

b.  Word counts

Wanderlust only marginally won out over homesickness, as use of the word world increased on average 0.8 times from the first to the last essay, and of home only 0.4 times (Table 5).

However, a bigger difference appears when particles are tallied.

The use of the first person singular (me, my, myself, mine, but not I) went down from an average of 29.2 times in the first essay to 23.5 times in the last (Table 6). The males showed a bigger change, from an average of 30 in the first to 15.7 in the last (highlighted in bold in the tables).

Interestingly, the use of the first person plural—we, our, ours, ourselves—showed no change, used only 2.2 times on average in both essays (Table 6). So much for Pennebaker et al’s ‘group identity’ (570).

But use of the second and third person almost doubled, from an average of 6.7 times per essay to 11.9. This was primarily fueled by OB’s interesting choice to write about himself in the third person in most of his second essay. Removing his results still shows an increase from an average of 7.1 to 8.4 (Table 7).

Because the number of appearances of particles would be affected by the number of sentences and individual style, it was decided to also calculate a ratio of the first person singular references to second and third person references.

First person plural was left out because it had shown no change in the earlier tally.

Whereas in their first essays the students on average referred to themselves 7.1 times more than they referred to others, in the last essay this had decreased to 2.9 times (Table 8). Removing OB from the results shows that the others used first person singular 6.5 times as often as second and third person in the first essay, but only 3.2 times as much in the last.

Not bad considering the assignment was, ‘Communicate to me about yourself.’


  1. Students’ previous travel experience

Originally it was felt that the students could be ranked from least to most foreign travel experience. However, the survey shows that all but one had traveled quite a bit, mostly with family or on school trips to. None had been to Asia. Given these results, no ranking was attempted. However, the writings of LB, who had never been outside the US, show an interesting comparison with the others.

Although her proportion of references to self and others come close to the average for the class, the proportion of her sentences that mentioned places increased by 46 points (17% to 63%), mostly attributable to mentions of foreign places (up 55 points) rather than the more familiar ones of home (down seven points).

2.  Comparing self-descriptions at the beginning and the end of the voyage

a.  What others have found

Study abroad programs

There has been much written about the narcissistic patterns of contemporary American culture and how Americans feel disconnected from a larger community. Briefly, the culture of narcissism is characterized by individuals who have lost their sense of community and who, as the term ‘narcissist’ denotes, are primarily self-concerned (Wagner and Magistrale, 2003, 130).

Wagner and Magistrale tell their student readers that their study abroad experiences will serve as an ‘antidote’ to this culture. They will develop ‘the capacity to empathize with others…in opposition to narcissism…We are arguing that the intercultural experience forces students to focus on things apart from themselves—on other peoples and their ways of life’ (135-6). They cite this observation from a student on exchange in Sweden: ‘My first few entries seem to be about individual experiences, whereas my latest entries are more concerned with Swedish ideas and issues’ (134).

Cash (1993) also quotes students’ reports recognizing a similar change:

‘The…program primarily changed my view of myself. I learned what I was made of and what I could do….I really explored myself and my independence.’

‘I’ve never learned more about myself and my goals as an adult than all I have learned this year.’

‘Through the [program] I was able to increase my knowledge and awareness about myself and the person I would like to become’ (9-10).

Use of first v second and third person

The studies reported by Pennebaker et al (2003) found interesting patterns in the use of particles related to gender, age and mental states.

Gender. The role of gender has been studied extensively. Although one study found no difference in the use of first person plural (we) or second person (you) pronouns, Penenbaker et al report others that ‘found a higher use of I, me, and my in female students’ stream of consciousness and coming-to-college writings’ and another which found more first person singular references in ‘women’s spontaneous speech’ (557).

However, Wagner and Magistrale (2003) report non-word count research which found the opposite:

Studies suggest that women are socialized to define themselves in terms of their relations with others as opposed to men who define themselves in terms of their separation from others…Women are much more likely to write about how they discovered cultural differences in the context of their relationship with individuals from the indigenous culture….Men, on the other hand, tend to write more abstractly about culture:  how norms and traditions are different from their own (140).

Age. Although this has not been studied as much as gender, Pennebaker reports fewer first person singular references, including I, ‘with increasing age’ (556).

Mental states. Much word count analysis is focused on writings produced during psychotherapy. According to Pennebaker et al, more frequent use of first person singular characterized (1) neuroticism, ‘consistent with the idea that excessive use of first person pronouns reflects a high degree of self-involvement’ (558) and (2) depression, which also showed a lack of second and third person pronouns. The researchers ‘interpret these findings as reflecting a weakness in connecting to others’ (560). In comparing depressed versus never depressed students, ‘Interestingly the effect was exclusively produced by a higher use of the word I. The use of me, my and mine was comparable between the two groups’ (560).

Pennebaker et al report that studies found fewer first person singular pronouns characterized deceptive communications. ‘When individuals are made to be self-aware they are more “honest” with themselves and self-references increase’ (560).

b.  What this study found

Word counts

The first word count of home v world proved inconclusive.

However, the counts of particles were more revealing. Although use of the first person plural showed no change, there was a definite decrease in the first person singular, even without counting I. Perhaps this can be attributed to an improvement in the students’ writing skills. But does it also indicate a move away from the American ‘culture of narcissism’?

Separating the results by gender supports Pennebaker’s findings, highlighted in boldface in the tables. The ten women had on average more references to self in both the first (95.6% to 93.7%) essay and the last (91% to 90.3%) than the three men.

However, their inclusion of others goes against the results reported by Wagner and Magistrale (2003). The women had an average of 45.3% sentences referring to others, compared to the men’s 48.3%; in the second essay the average was 46.4% for the women, and a whopping 55% for the men. This large number was skewed by OB writing in the third person. Without his results, the average for the other two males was 47%, only slightly higher than the women.

Revealingly, OB wrote about the same experiences in both essays—growing up in Israel during the war, separating from a group of bad companions, finding good friends at university—but almost totally in third person at the end of the voyage:  ‘In order to communicate about [OB] I should illuminate his early childhood…’ Was he coming back observing himself from a more objective perspective?

Pennebaker reports that first person references decrease with age. Did the students age, or mature, more than just 65 chronological days during their voyage?

Does the decrease in first person references also reflect a decrease in the students’ levels of neuroticism and depression? Were they becoming more well-balanced as they travelled from port to port? Or, in line with Pennebaker’s other reports, were they becoming more deceptive?

These questions cannot be answered fully based on this small sample. However, the difference in the ratio of first person to second and third person particles, even without OB’s results, does indicate a definite shift towards defining oneself in relation to others.

Proportion of sentences referring to self v others and places

Perhaps the most interesting findings are the changes in the proportion of sentences in the essays that refer to themselves, to others, and to places, whether home or abroad.

The content of their lead sentences coincides with this finding:

‘Travelling around the Pacific Rim for the last two months has changed who I am today’ (BR).

‘I would be lying if I said I haven’t changed over the past two months’ (AW). Describing her transformation from a traveller who followed others to an independent woman who made her own way through South Korea, she concludes, ‘If it weren’t for that experience, I may have remained satisfied with being a person who just goes through the motions.’

LS begins by quoting received wisdom from previous voyagers:  ‘I should have kept a running tally of the number of times I was told how Semester at Sea™ would alter my life…So what do I do now when I go back? Tell them they were right?’ She concludes however, that the experience ‘didn’t change me, it just helped me [emphasis hers]. With a chance to start over, to reinvent myself, what I found was startling. I’m still the same person….I’ve just got a better handle on it now.’

KP begins her last essay describing herself sitting in her cabin feeling ‘different than I did 65 days ago…I thought I knew myself…This voyage made me realize things about myself that no other experience could have possibly revealed to me.’ As she tearfully lists the changes, she reports, ‘I realized for the first time in 20 years who I was, my strengths and weaknesses, and was willing to admit the things I needed to work on in my life to be a better person.’

The most significant change was the increase in the references to place in the students’ second essays. This is clearly demonstrated by comparing the lead sentences written by the student with the least travel experience, LB. When first asked to communicate about herself she began:  ‘I think in order to understand a person we must understand what has made them who they are.’

Two months later:  ‘Images of waterfalls in Malaysia, the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, the Great Wall of China, the DMZ in Korea, and the A-Bomb Dome in Japan dart through my mind to remind me of the life-changing experience of Semester at Sea™.’

TS Eliot is often quoted on Semester at Sea voyages:  ‘The end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and to know the place for the first time.’

Conclusions and Recommendations

There are few arguments against study abroad, especially for ‘narcissistic’ Americans. As this experience becomes more common in a global economy, it may be time for academic studies to move beyond conclusions such as, ‘The data indicated that the program enhanced cultural awareness’ (Black and Duhon, 2006, 140).

The effect on students’ personal development could be the subject of much more study. Many state that they change their career goals, they determine to make a difference in the world. Semester at Sea™ claims to have a higher rate of alumni participating in the Peace Corps than in the American university population in general. These statistics should be relatively easy to collect, from former as well as future ‘academic adventurers.’

But do they really change? Are they less self-involved? As Pennebaker et al (2003) pointed out, rather than analysing ‘the content of what they say,’ analysing word use, especially particles, has the advantage of revealing their changes throughtheir choice of language.

How will the words these students use to describe their Semester at Sea™ experience change over time? Will it be all about them? Or about others?


Dean Donald Gogniat, the Executive Dean on this voyage and a veteran of others, gave a lecture in the Global Perspectives module, required for all on board, halfway back across the Pacific.

He conducted an exercise he had done on previous voyages. We were each to write our name and home address on a sheet of paper. After that we were to write the names of three people we had met during the voyage, who we would remember for the rest of our lives.

He then collected these sheets and promised us that, in exactly six months’ time—which is this month, February 2007—he would mail each of us our sheet of paper.

How many of us will remember those others?

Appendices available upon request,

  1. Description of Semester at Sea™ program from
  2. Syllabus for Writing Strategies for Mass Media course, Florida International University, Miami, FL
  3. Copy of questionnaire
  4. Syllabus for Writing for Media module, Summer, 2006
  5. Sample papers for comparison
  6. Tally of questionnaire results
  7. Tables: Tallies of results of content analysis
  8. References
  9. Original proposal




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