First time abroad fuels intellectual growth, book finds

Joshua McKeown with bookJoshua McKeown, SUNY Oswego’s director of international education and programs, said his new book includes landmark data on how studying abroad can mean the world to a student’s intellectual growth.

In “The First-Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on College Student Intellectual Development,” McKeown explores how the first study-abroad experience cultivates high levels of intellectual and critical-thinking benefits.

“There has been a gap in assessment of the outcomes of study abroad,” McKeown said, noting that while colleges have insisted international study was a positive thing, quantitative data was previously lacking.

His study of 226 students “found that students who had been abroad before for a significant length of time began at a significantly higher level than those who had not,” he said. “After about a semester abroad, their peers caught up.”

This supports the argument educators have long made that even one study-abroad experience could provide sizable intellectual benefits, McKeown said. Since study abroad began as a field in the early 20th century, its proponents have said “our students seem to have developed an objective viewpoint, more worldly attitudes and the like, but it had never been demonstrated in this way,” McKeown explained.

The study’s implications are that “as colleges seek to identify ways for our students to gain intellectually and academically, study abroad can contribute to higher education in ways we’ve never thought before,” McKeown said. “Study abroad is the best way to gain knowledge about the world, even if it’s just one country in the world.”

Study abroad has changed and evolved over the years, and Oswego’s offerings have led trends in international programs, McKeown said. Faculty-led short courses to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America have made it possible for more students to see the world.

SUNY Oswego’s academic solutions-based classes have moved past language and culture study to bring physics students to Brazil to work on a computerized telescope, education students to Benin to help modernize the African nation’s educational system and biological sciences students to the Virgin Islands to study marine ecology.

The number of Oswego students studying abroad has tripled in the past few years and, by Institute of International Education measures, the college now sends more than 20 percent of its students abroad—twice as many proportionally as the average U.S. college [corrected for 2007-08 on 4/16/10]. While this is a high measure among peer institutions, McKeown said, “at the same time, 80 percent are not studying abroad.”

“We realize many students may not have had the opportunity before, and may never have the opportunity again, and here’s evidence of how it’s worthy of our collective support,” he added.

McKeown’s book has gained international notice already, including mention in a letter in the Japan Times citing it as evidence that that country should invest in sending young Japanese abroad to gain intellectual development and world awareness.

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CONTACT: Joshua McKeown, 312-2118,

(Posted: Feb 18, 2009)

Tags: research news: books and publications