A recent study found that students who study abroad are more civically engaged than those who don’t.

Though formal classroom learning is an essential part of higher education, researchers at University of Chicago recognized that college is about more than what goes on in the lecture hall.

“It’s interesting to think about ways in which students’ college experiences outside the classroom prepare them for the world out there,” says Anne Henly, director of undergraduate studies in psychology and principal investigator of the study.

What impact do “cocurricular activities,” like joining a club or playing a sport, have on a student’s psychological development? As part of a grant awarded by the Self, Virtue, and Public Life Initiative, the Center for Practical Wisdom’s Jeannie Ngoc Boulware, Yena Kim, Howard Nusbaum, and Henly conducted a study focused on one specific co-curricular activity—studying abroad.

Though programs differ in location and level of immersion, students traveling overseas usually find themselves navigating different socio-cultural norms. Being in a new place allows students to acquire language skills, meet new people from other cultures and encounter different ideas.

“Our hypothesis was that because study abroad removes you from what you’re familiar with and introduces you to ways in which other people live, that might encourage you to see things from their perspective,” Henly says. “This might change basic perspective-taking abilities and empathic processes that affect social attitudes and engagement.”

To test this theory, researchers surveyed nearly 200 college students: those who had studied abroad, those hadn’t studied abroad but planned to, and students who weren’t interested in studying abroad.

Participants in each group completed several scales that measured not only civic attitudes and behaviors, but also psychological qualities that support those behaviors, such as empathy, epistemic humility, and cultural competency.

All groups scored similarly on the “Need for Cognition” scale, which measures enjoyment of thinking. In fact, apart from a difference in overall cultural competency, students who planned to study abroad and students who weren’t planning to were not fundamentally different.

Likewise, civic attitudes were high for all groups—most people believe they should participate in their community. However, students who had studied abroad were more likely to act on those beliefs—for example actually taking a volunteer position instead of simply believing volunteering is important.

Read the full article about civic engagement at Futurity .