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Beyond Barriers: Re-Thinking Education Abroad Using a Strengths-Based Approach

Monday, December 11, 2017  
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 By Shayna A. Trujillo, MA

Since 2008, quality education abroad programming has been widely recognized as a high impact practice in higher education (Kuh, G). High impact practices show significant positive influence on student learning and retention, and education abroad specifically affects diverse and historically underrepresented students at a higher positive rate than their peers (Center for Global Education, 2017). Yet, despite the potential positive impact for all students, participation in education abroad opportunities remains disproportionately an experience for white, female students (Institute of International Education, 2017). Many international education professionals who understand this data attempt to mitigate the participation gap by focusing efforts on addressing the real and perceived barriers that face diverse and historically underrepresented students.

What if, however, we turned that idea around? How might shifting our philosophy and framing language change the way we understand, design programs for, and advise students? Could shifting to a strengths-based approach positively impact inclusive excellence and equity for diverse and historically underrepresented students in education abroad programming? This article briefly examines the intersection between strengths-based approaches and the current education abroad paradigm, how a strengths-based approach could shape program design, and provides recommendations to both scholars and practitioners.


Strengths-based approaches are derived from research in a number of fields, including education, social work, psychology, and organizational theory (Lopez, S. and Louis, M., 2009). The beginning of strength is a talent, defined by Anderson (2005) as a “naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied” (p.185). When a talent is refined by knowledge and skill, it becomes a strength (Schreiner, L. & Anderson, E., 2005, p. 22). While knowledge and skills can be acquired, talents are natural, and it is only in combination, and application through experience, that strengths can be used to achieve personal excellence. This is the core of the strengths-based approach, recognizing one's talents, developing them into strengths, applying those strengths creatively to positively impact the task or role before oneself.

People operating from this worldview embrace a student-centered model that shapes how they engage in both their own learning and teaching processes. Fundamentally, according to Lopez and Louis (2009), the strengths-based approach centers around five principles:

  • measurement of strengths,

  • individualization to student needs/interests,  

  • networking with those who affirm strengths,  

  • deliberate application inside/outside of the classroom, and

  • intentional development of strengths through novel experiences

An individual, or organization, that follows the tenets of a strengths-based approach operates from the assumption that everyone has resources that help them achieve success in many areas of their life. When someone is aware of their natural talents, driven to improve them with knowledge and skills, and supported strategically in translating their strengths into diverse areas of personal, academic, and professional growth, the resulting achievement has no upper limit. Embracing this mindset, means changing the ways in which programs and student interactions are fundamentally structured, organized, and implemented.

Strength-based approaches have successfully permeated several areas of higher education including career development, first-year experience courses, academic advising, and leadership development (Soria, K. & Stubblefield, R., 2015, p. 352). The focus in much of this research seeks to thoughtfully guide students through identifying in what academic or professional sector their strengths could be most readily applied. Apart from the individualized perspective, some student affairs professionals use a strengths-based approach to connect their programs with larger institutional goals, including student retention, engagement, and success (Soria, K. & Stubblefield, R, 2015, p.366).

Education abroad incorporates all of these areas, from academic advising to career development, from leadership development to student support services. It is that role as a central hub for the distinct goals of higher education that make education abroad the ideal sector for implementing strengths-based approaches. An approach that has successful disparate parts might have something important to add to the success of the whole.   

Structural and Individual Barriers to Student Success

For decades, educators and administrators in international education have identified and discussed the real and perceived barriers that limit diverse and historically underrepresented student participation in education abroad opportunities. The barriers are often termed the “Fs” and may include: family, finances, faculty, fear, friends, and/or familiarity (Dessoff, A., 2006; Murray Brux, J & Fry, B., 2010; Paus, E. & Robinson, M., 2008). Among professionals, much conversation and programming revolves around the “F” which stands in the way of a student accessing education abroad opportunities. The emphasis is on the barrier, not on the individual student.

This outlook is fundamentally a deficit-based approach. Common in educational institutions, this type of approach identifies the gaps or needs a student has and attempts to correct them through remedial programming. These programs or services are looking to fix a problem or help students improve in areas for which they are unprepared (Anderson, 2005, p. 181). There is some consensus that “deficit thinking permeates US society, and both schools and those who work in schools mirror these beliefs” (Yosso*, 2005, p.75). Schools, built in the context of a racist and classist society like the United States, inherently perpetuate the systems that keep certain groups oppressed.

Deficit-based thinking denies the intersectional identities and experiences of individuals, and presupposes that an outside force must sweep in to accurately identify and solve the existing problems. An alternative to this view is the powerful community-cultural wealth model. Rather than seeing communities of color as places full of cultural disadvantage, this model identifies six types of cultural wealth possessed by socially marginalized groups. Yosso pinpoints certain knowledge, skills, abilities, and networks that social marginalized groups have access to (2005). In fact, these types of capital (aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant) and Yosso’s whole argument, can be holistically mapped onto a strengths model.

Both the community cultural wealth model and the strengths-based approach accept that students bring with them a set of talents from their homes and communities into their educational experiences. The more  thoughtfully that educators can work towards dismantling the deficit-based thinking through both the community cultural wealth capital and strengths-based approach, the more likely access, inclusion, and equity for diverse and historically underrepresented students will be prioritized and solidified in educational institutions around the country.

When social identities are seen as intrinsically negative, difference is marginalized. This brings implicit tension to our work. There is tension between the reality that we work in a system built on structural inequities and the desire to avoid marginalizing difference through its identification. However, the strengths-based approach is a complement to that structural inequity. We can subvert that same system by leveraging intentional reframing of students as ‘at promise’ rather than ‘at risk.’

A Strengths-Based Approach to Education Abroad Program Design

Education abroad is a unique opportunity for learning in an international and/or intercultural context. Many abroad programs use education abroad to incorporate experiential learning, critical reflection, identity development, and a holistic approach to integrating international, intercultural, and global dimensions into learning. Recent research has indeed shown that “most students learn to learn effectively abroad only when an educator intervenes, strategically and intentionally” (Vande Berg, Paige, & Lou, 2012, p. 17).  Successful development of a program, then, would include targeted interventions with structured student learning outcomes related to curricular achievement, career advancement, cross-cultural skill development, and/or personal development (Hoffa, W. & DePaul, S.C., 2010, p.13).

Where might the strengths-based approach fit into this complex world of education abroad program design? In fact, strengths-based thinking can inform every stage of program development. Using the logic model framework, as outlined by Deardorff (2015), helps to identify the stages of program development. Below are the stages and supplemental questions to ask at each stage to prompt educators and administrators to consider the incorporation of strengths-based approaches.

  1. Begin with the long-term desired impact and end goals of the program

    1. What results are to be achieved?

    2. Have you engaged relevant stakeholders, including students, in the discussion about end goals?

    3. How might strengths honed in an education abroad program impact that students’ long-term academic and career achievement?

  2. Identify related short-, mid-, and long-term learning outcomes

    1. What change is expected to occur in the learner?

    2. Does each of these outcomes show progress towards the desired impact?

    3. Can students identify, explain, use, analyze, and evaluate their strengths as tools in an international and/or intercultural context?

  3. Identify all activities that are needed to reach the desired outcomes

    1. What learning experiences are key?

    2. What strategic and intentional interventions are needed before, during, and after the program to achieve the outcomes and goals?

    3. What types of critical reflection activities might incorporate connections between students’ talents and strengths at home and overcoming challenges abroad?

  4. Define the resources needed to successfully run all activities

    1. What financial, human, or other inputs exist?

    2. What additional support might be needed?

    3. What tools will be used to measure and identify student strengths?

  5. Finally, consider the outputs, specific numbers, that reflect when activities are accomplished

    1. How much time is needed for each activity to be evaluated as successful?

    2. Do these parameters then lead logically back into desired outcomes?

    3. In what ways can strengths be usefully employed through various activities?

Of course, there are other important elements relevant to the design of a program, such as advising, policies and procedures, marketing and recruiting, and health and safety considerations. However, strengths-based approaches have particular salience when the focus is on student learning. Education abroad programming is an ideal place for students to leverage their strengths in new and exciting ways. Professionals can thoughtfully and intentionally incorporate strengths-based language, assumptions, and theory into the elements that most readily translate to positively impact all students. When strength-based theory becomes part of practice, student development and learning continues to assert its place as a primary of objective of education abroad.

Recommendations for Next Steps

Practitioners in the field of education abroad are most successful when they can apply and modify theory to their everyday work. The following are several key recommendations based on the premise discussed above.

  • See students, including diverse and historically underrepresented students, as people first. All students have innate talents, strengths, and community supports that can be leveraged to have successful educational abroad experiences

  • Change the conversation around education abroad barriers to focus on the ways in which individuals can overcome those barriers, whether real or perceived, using their innate strengths and talents and build supports institutionally to remove the onus of change from the individual

  • Use personal reflection exercises pre-, during, and post-educational experiences to promote critical thought about how one's strengths and talents can be leveraged to improve learning and growth abroad and upon return

  • Look for ways to incorporate strengths-based language and questions into all aspects of work (goal setting, strategy writing, policy design, recruitment, marketing, advising, professional development, and re-entry programming)

  • Discuss strengths-based supports with faculty members and on-site staff to facilitate on-the-ground conversations around tackling new cultural adjustments challenges using students´ strengths

  • Engage valid and reliable tools to measure strengths and assess progress towards integrate strengths-based program outcomes

Strengths-based approaches fit well with the student-centered, learning-focused mission of many international educators. Changing how we think about students can truly change how we interact with, design programs for, and engage students in education abroad. When we take the time to refine our practice and programs based on relevant research, not only do we improve our programs, but we ultimately make a greater positive impact on the students we serve.  With the strengths and identities of diverse and historically underrepresented students at the fore, equity and inclusive excellence just might be on the horizon in education abroad.  


Anderson, E. C. (2005). Strengths-Based Educating: A Concrete Way to Bring Out the Best in Students—and Yourself: The Confessions of an Educator Who Got It Right—Finally!. Educational Horizons, 83(3), 180-189.

Berg, M. V., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (2012). Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They? re Not, and What We Can Do About It. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Deardorff, D. K. (2015). Demystifying outcomes assessment for international educators: A practical approach. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

DePaul, S., & Hoffa, W. W. (2010). A history of study abroad: 1965–present. Carlisle, PA: Forum on Education Abroad.

Dessoff, A. (2006). Who's not going abroad?. International Educator, 15(2), 20.

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Paus, E., & Robinson, M. (2008). Increasing study abroad participation: The faculty makes the difference. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 17, 33-49.

Schreiner, L. A., & “Chip” Anderson, E. (2005). Strengths-based advising: A new lens for higher education. NACADA Journal, 25(2), 20-29.

Soria, K. M., & Stubblefield, R. (2015). Knowing Me, Knowing You: Building Strengths Awareness, Belonging, and Persistence in Higher Education. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 17(3), 351-372.

Yosso*, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education, 8(1), 69-91.