Study-abroad programs have become an integral part of the curriculum in many social work schools in the US. The popularity of studying abroad may be attributed to increased professional expectations regarding social workers' ability to work cross culturally and cross nationally in their home country and own culture in the era of globalization.
Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between studying abroad and social work students' multicultural competence. Not surprisingly, all of these studies have found that the relationship is significant and positive.
Few studies, however, have examined the relationship between traveling abroad (international travel with no explicit educational goal or intention) and multicultural competence. This limitation of previous studies is reflected in the fact that none of them provide a satisfactory answer to the following question: Between a student who has never traveled abroad but studied abroad just one time and a student who has never studied abroad but traveled abroad 10 times, whose multicultural competencies are more advanced and sophisticated?
The primary goal of this study was to address this void in the existing literature to provide evidence-based, practical help for social work educators who have wondered which types and kinds of overseas experiences are most appropriate in training culturally competent social workers.
Participants in this study were 86 undergraduate and master-level graduate social work students who were born in Midwestern rural states (specifically, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana) and had never resided outside these areas before college or graduate school. Participants were deliberately recruited from students whose places of birth and residences were in rural areas to minimize the potential effects of lurking variables (e.g., exposure to urban diversity) on participants' multicultural awareness, knowledge, and communication skills.
Dependent variable--Survey respondents' multicultural competence was measured with the Multicultural Counseling Knowledge and Awareness Scale (MCKAS).
Independent variables--Study-abroad experience was measured by whether or not the respondent had ever studied abroad. Travel-abroad experience was measured using the number of times the respondent had traveled outside the US.
Control variables--Control variables included gender, age, educational level, and race/ethnicity.
This study used multiple regression analysis to examine the relationships between studying abroad and traveling abroad and social work students' multicultural competence.
Regression analysis results showed that respondents' multicultural competencies are significantly positively related to their study-abroad experience (p > .01), but not significantly related to the number of times of having traveled outside the US (p < .10).
Analysis results confirmed that simply increasing the frequency of contact with heterogeneous institutions or people will not necessarily translate into students' heightened awareness of their own culture, increased knowledge of different cultures, or advanced skills in working flexibly with culturally different clients. That is, travel abroad is not a high-quality substitute for study abroad. The study findings suggest that to train culturally competent social workers, it is essential for students to undergo intense cultural immersion in heterogeneous environments.