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Personal Growth may be one of the least understood, yet most important areas of growth for students participating in study abroad programs. There is a deeply personal, emotional, and spiritual transformation that occurs while learning in a different country.

Transformative Learning | Personal Growth

Our Transformative Learning series dives deeper into each one of the goal areas/educational values, we have identified. We take a closer look at why Intercultural Competence, Global Citizenship, Personal Growth, Intellectual Growth, and Professional Development are important to us and how we aim to encourage growth in these areas in our faculty-led and virtual exchange study abroad programs.

For school programs, our goals are slightly different. We chose Leadership and Collaboration in place of Professional Development and Intellectual Growth as we felt these were more relevant to school students.

Let’s take a closer look at our third goal, Personal Growth.

Why is Personal Growth important?

Personal Growth may be one of the least understood, yet most important areas of growth for students participating in study abroad programs.1  There is a deeply personal, emotional and spiritual transformation that occurs while learning in a different country – an internal, sometimes ethereal change that might be difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, it is powerful and can influence the trajectory of one’s life. Arguably, studying abroad anywhere has the power to promote this kind of growth, but we believe that the learning journeys we facilitate in Africa are particularly special in this regard.

How do we encourage Personal Growth?

Studying abroad could be seen as providing a “disorienting dilemma”, a “catalyst for change in perception […] that can prompt students […] to reflect on assumptions about [theirselves] and society, leading to deeper self-understanding and increased awareness”.2  As with all our transformation goal areas, personal growth is prioritized during our reflection sessions; we include ‘downtime’ in our study abroad itineraries to allow for this, and it is measured pre- and post-program through our transformation questionnaires (used when appropriate). The prioritization of this goal is important, as it shows students that while studying abroad offers ample opportunities for “external” growth, “internal redirection” or transformation is just as important.3 We encourage students, through journaling and the ways they engage with activities, to set their own goals of personal transformation during the program, including aspects such as knowing and understanding themselves more deeply, exploring their identities, navigating ambiguity, analyzing their individual strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrating receptiveness to learning from their group members as well as those they interact with.

What does Personal Growth look like?

Several studies report demonstrable gains in personal growth as a result of studying abroad, in categories such as:

  • self-confidence
  • maturity
  • tolerance for ambiguity
  • self-awareness
  • flexibility
  • development of faith and spirituality,
  • and identity development.4

For each student, personal growth will have a unique manifestation. We understand that personal growth can take a variety of forms. For the purpose of our programs, our directed focus is on the following learning outcomes: for students to demonstrate increased personal self-awareness as well as an increased tolerance for ambiguity; to grow in areas of spirituality and/or faith; and, ultimately, to become more confident individuals.

Personal growth is but one part of the student transformation process, and the lessons learned and gains perceived by students in this area often filter into other, perhaps more tangible goal areas, such as intercultural competence and global citizenship. Our transformation goals work together like fingers on a hand to empower students and enact positive change. Personal growth is, indeed, integral to that holistic transformation process, and there is perhaps no better testament to this fact than testimonials from our students:

This trip has been the most challenging adventure I’ve ever endured and I’ve learned more about myself here than anywhere else. I feel like I’m leaving a changed person but for the better and really can’t wait to take what I’ve learned in my time here with me for the rest of my life.” – Student, University of Delaware (2020)*

I’ve pushed myself the past few weeks and I’ve been able to do things that I never dreamed [of] doing” – Student, Wake Forest University, 2019*

I believe that I am open to change and resilience and I think the activities that I have done and the people I have encountered have proved this. I also think I have a greater understanding of my weaknesses by constantly being out of my comfort zone.” – Student, Leys School, 2019*

*Recorded in EDU Africa Post-Program Transformation Questionnaires, in the category of “Personal Growth”.


Dr Heidi Barends, EDU Africa

Heidi Barends, PhD | Academic Director

Heidi holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Cape Town where she was involved in research and teaching from 2014-2018. She was also a faculty member at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology from 2015-2018. Heidi’s work in programming at EDU Africa is an ideal translation of her research interests – she is passionate about ethical exchange between African countries and the rest of the world, and EDU Africa offers her a platform to achieve this.


Herbers, M. Sharon and Mullins Nelson, Barbara. “Using the Disorienting Dilemma to Promote Transformative Learning.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching.  Vol 20. No. 1. 2009: 5-34.

Mikulec, Erin. “Short-Term Study Abroad for Pre-service Teachers: Personal and Professional Growth in Brighton, England.” International Journal: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Vol 13 (2019) No. 1. Art. 11: 1-12.

Miller-Perrin, Cindy and Thompson, Don. “The Development of Vocational Calling, Identity, and Faith in College Students: A Preliminary Study of the Impact of Study Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad. Vol XIX (Fall/Winter 2010): 87-103. 

University of California MERCED. ““What Statistics Show about Study Abroad Students.” 2020.