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Cultural identity and reentry in short-term student missionaries.

This study explores the relationship between cross cultural reentry and cultural identity in college student participants in short-term international mission trips. Twenty undergraduate students from a Christian college participated in focus groups discussing the question, "How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?" The discussion transcripts were coded, and analyzed according to (a) frequency, the number of times a theme was addressed; (b) extensiveness, the number of people who discussed a theme; and (c) intensity, the emotional strength of a response (Krueger, 1998). Negative reactions to home culture were the most frequent, extensive, and intense themes, followed by themes related to cultural awareness and personal growth. Other themes addressed adjustment and positive reactions to home culture. The findings imply that participants in short-term mission trips experience challenges to cultural identity, characterized by negative reactions. Recommendations for sending missions agencies are provided.


For centuries, missionaries have traveled around the world sharing the news of salvation and bringing humanitarian aid to millions of people. Over the last 20 years, missiologists have noted a dramatic increase in the number of short-term mission projects, due partially to technological advances and improved accessibility to air travel (Belay, 1996; Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995). The rise in popularity is so great that the decades of the 1980s and 1990s are known as the era of the "short-term mission boom" (Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995). Interestingly, the internet search engine,, yields 19,100 results for the search term "short-term mission trips." Many high school youth groups and Christian schools host yearly international trips which offer opportunities for evangelism and service. Short-term mission trips are becoming an important aspect of post-secondary Christian education. Thousands of American, Christian college students participate in school sanctioned or required international mission projects (Tuttle, 2000).

International trips are unique in that they involve a series of transitions: cross cultural immersion, adjustment to foreign culture and readjustment to home culture. In the middle of the last century, psychologists began studying the effects of cultural transition (McClintock & Davis, 1958) and over the years, research has shown that the cultural transition process is associated with changes in values, communication style, goals, relationships, and worldview (Belay, 1996; Guan & Dodder, 2001; Raschio, 1987; Uehara, 1986). Recent work has focused on how cultural transitions influence identity (Guan & Dodder, 2001; Sussman, 2000, 2001, 2002). The current study was designed to further explore how cross cultural exposure influences the cultural identity of short-term student mission participants.

Cultural Transitions and Reentry

Cultural transitions involve a series of major adjustments. An individual leaves the familiarity of his or her home to immerse in a foreign environment that requires a different way of life and a new way of viewing the world. The traveler faces the multiple demands of adapting to different roles, a new daily routine, an unfamiliar set of social norms, and an altered global perspective. Each piece of the cultural transition process involves a unique set of challenges and adjustments. Reentry, the final phase of cultural transition, is the process of re-adjusting to the home culture upon return (Adler, 1981). Multiple studies have indicated that travelers report higher levels of distress during reentry than during the initial cultural adaptation to another country (Adler, 1981; Moore, Van Jones, & Austin, 1988; Sussman, 2000). This experience is surprising to many travelers who happily anticipate reunions with loved ones and the return to the comfort and familiarity of home. Corporate and government employees returning from assignments abroad reported that reentry shock was more difficult than the initial adjustment regardless of location or type of assignment (Adler). Research with American students returned from studying abroad indicated that the length of time away from the home culture is not related to the extent of reentry shock, implying that it is possible for those who go on a short trip to experience substantial reentry distress (Uehara, 1986).

Reentry research has examined business people, federal employees, educators, high school and college students, military personnel, missionaries, and international relief and development workers (Austin, McDonald, & Austin, 1988). Past research with college students has demonstrated that student travelers report significant personal changes as a result of cultural immersion experiences. Students who went overseas experienced positive changes in parental and sibling relationships and mixed (both positive and negative) changes in friendships (Martin, 1986). Cultural transitions have also been associated with changes in views about dating, individualism, clothing, achievement-oriented behavior, as well as clear, long-lasting shifts in perspectives on global issues (Uehara, 1986). Overseas experiences result in an increased awareness of world issues and of the role of the United States in the international community. Students reported experiencing personal conflict when they became aware of changes in themselves and when they compared their home culture to the culture they visited (Raschio, 1987).

Cultural Identity

Young adults are in the unique developmental stage of identity formation. It is logical to predict that international experiences have tremendous impact during such formative times, particularly on students' sense of cultural identity. Cultural identity is the mental framework through which individuals understand their way of being, interpret social cues, choose their behaviors, respond to their surroundings, and evaluate the actions of other people (Sussman, 2000). According to Sussman, culture is part of the internal framework of an individual, and it becomes a reference for self-definition and a way of ordering social expectations and relationships.

A number of studies with college students have highlighted the impact of cultural transitions on cultural identity. When Chinese students studying in the United States were compared with Chinese students who remained in China, cross cultural immersion was associated with changes in values and cultural identity (Guan & Dodder, 2001). Ward and Kennedy (1993a) reported that subtle changes in cultural identity can be adaptive while abroad. They found that a strong home culture identity was associated with increased social difficulty among British citizens residing in Hong Kong. Identity shifts may be advantageous for those permanently relocating to another culture, but such shifts may not be advantageous for short-term visitors (Sussman, 2000).

The changes that one experiences while abroad contrast with the norms of the home culture, causing returned travelers to feel that they do not "fit in." When people transition to a new culture, their cultural identity changes in ways that go unnoticed until they return home and experience disconnection and isolation, which are aspects of reentry that are experienced as overwhelmingly negative (Sussman, 2000). Awareness of shifts in cultural identity may contribute to the over-all growth and functioning of the missionary. Therefore, it is important to study cultural identity and cultural transitions, because a better understanding of these constructs could inform pre-trip training, debriefing processes and reentry support programs for both short-term and long-term missionaries.


The life of the missionary is wrought with challenge and difficulty. On the field, many cross cultural workers have been exposed to poverty, direct violence, indirect violence, life-threatening illness, car accidents, crime, difficult living conditions, a heavy workload, estrangement from family, and a number of other personal difficulties (Carter, 1999; Eriksson, Vande Kemp, Gorsuch, Hoke, & Foy, 2001). In addition to the field stressors, missionaries face the difficulty of continuous adjustment to new cultures and reentry to the home culture. Many studies have examined cultural adjustment and reentry in missionaries and humanitarian aid workers (Austin, C., et al., 1988). However, most of the research has focused on career missionaries rather than short-term missionaries. The cultural identity model has not been explored with the short-term missionary population and there is little research specifically on the reentry experience of short-term missionaries, despite the dramatic increase in the number of short-term mission trips (Lovell-Hawker & Hawker, 2004).

Focus Groups

Studies have used various scales to measure changes in cultural identity (Armes & Ward, 1988; Guin & Dodder, 2001; Ward & Kennedy, 1993a; Ward & Kennedy, 1993b). Some utilized Likert scales to assess the extent of identification with home culture and other cultures. Participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with the following statements on a Likert scale, "In some ways I feel less 'American' than I did before my international assignment" and "I feel that I am a more global or international person now" (Sussman, 2001, p. 116). Although the findings of these studies were useful in establishing the relationship between cultural transitions and cultural identity, the range of information that can be drawn from survey methods is limited in scope. In order to contribute to a better understanding of how cultural transitions affect cultural identity, the current study was designed employing a focus group design.

Focus groups are particularly useful when the purpose of the study is to help generate a theory or when the constructs are difficult to define (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1992). As shown above, literature suggests that reentry is stressful and that identity changes appear to be an important factor in international experiences, yet there has been little open-ended exploration of these variables. Focus groups are particularly appropriate for this topic and population because the design allows the participants to tell their unique stories and to focus on the domains that are most salient to them. Qualitative methods are more sensitive to social context and detail and are appropriate research strategies when understanding is more important than prediction and control (Nelson, 2003). Given the lack of qualitative work on this topic and the need for a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between the constructs, a qualitative focus group design was employed.

Summary and Hypothesis

As the above discussion has shown, cultural transitions and their impact on cultural identity is an important area of research for those involved with the increasing number of short-term missionaries. Further research is necessary to understand the complex relationship between cultural identity and cultural transitions, especially in relation to reentry and reentry distress (Belay, 1996; Sussman, 2000). The current study was designed for two purposes: (a) to qualitatively assess the hypothesis that cross cultural reentry results in cultural identity changes in participants of short-term missions trips and (b) to explore the nature and content of these cultural identity changes.



Participants were recruited from a private, evangelical Christian college in the United States. Twenty students participated in three focus groups (5 male, 15 female). The participants ranged in age from 19 to 25 with an average age of 21.5 (SD = 1.07). Information on marital status and ethnicity was not collected in an effort to protect the confidentiality of the participants. All of the participants were currently enrolled as undergraduate students or had recently obtained bachelors degrees, and all had previous cross cultural missions experiences. One student had participated in one trip; 12 students had participated in less than five trips; 6 students had been on more than five trips; and 1 student grew up on the mission field. Of the students, 14 went on their most recent mission trip in the summer of 2002; 4 went in 2001; 2 went in 2000; and 1 went in 1999. The trips the students participated in varied widely in objective and destination. The focus groups were conducted in May of 2003, which was approximately eight months post-trip for most participants. Trips to seventeen different countries on five continents were represented in the sample: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Mexico (3 participants), Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador (2 participants), China, India, Japan, Thailand, India, Russia, Maldova, England and Australia. The majority of participants (n = 16, 80%) worked with children and adults; 4 worked only with adults; and 1 indicated working only with children. In general, the trips were a mixture of humanitarian aid and evangelism. On a seven-point Likert scale, ranging from extremely bad to extremely good, 3 participants rated their overall experience as good; 9 participants rated it as very good; and 8 participants rated it as extremely good.

Data Collection Procedure

The college's director of international missions contacted students from two lists: (a) those planning to go on trips the upcoming summer that had been on past trips; and (b) those who went on a trip the past summer for which he had current contact information. He contacted them by e-mail and telephone, inviting them to a free pizza dinner and an opportunity to discuss their personal experiences on their mission trips. The director indicated that scheduling conflicts was the primary reason given by students who did not attend.

The Human Subjects Review Committee at the university where the students were enrolled reviewed the research protocol and approved the data collection procedure. Teams of two graduate students from a neighboring academic institution conducted the focus groups. One facilitator took notes on participant responses, while the other led the discussion based on seven discussion questions about the nature of the missions and reentry experience. Participants responded in varying order to questions and, in most cases, every participant responded to every question. The focus groups were recorded onto audio tapes.

On the day of data collection, the primary investigator introduced the participants to the focus group format, including the use of audio recording. The primary investigator also informed participants of the intended use of the study results, as well as the fact that they could leave at anytime during the focus group. After providing informed consent, the participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire. They were randomly divided into three groups according to the color of the nametag they received when they entered the room. The groups were then asked to go into separate rooms for the focus group discussion. In order to protect confidentiality the participants used self-selected aliases throughout the discussion. These aliases were the sole identifiers used in the focus groups. The participants addressed each other using the aliases, and the note takers used the aliases to track the participants' comments.

All groups discussed a uniform set of questions presented in the same order (see Appendix A). The questions were developed by the research team to facilitate discussion of the students' experience of short-term missions work and of cross-cultural reentry. The set of questions was then evaluated by a larger group of researchers with expertise in the field of international missions.

After data collection, a team of three graduate students transcribed the audio-recorded responses. The graduate students did not transcribe the sections of the tape that they planned to use for research questions. Three portions of individual responses were difficult to transcribe word for word. In these situations, all three transcribers listened to the difficult portions of the audio tape and used the notes taken during the focus groups to decipher the major content of the responses but not the exact wording. In such situations, all three transcribers reached a consensus as to the major theme or meaning of the content. None of the responses were excluded from data analysis.

Data Analysis Procedure

The responses to each question were analyzed separately. This article is based on the data collected in response to the sixth question, "How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?" The first step of the data analysis procedure was to develop themes for coding. The primary investigator reduced the raw narrative information into topic sentences by reading the transcript line by line and copying the main thought(s) of each response onto individual slips of paper. In most cases, the participant's exact wording was maintained. The second step was to sort the main thoughts into thematic categories. Three teams of three to four professors and graduate students with expertise in the field of international missions sorted the responses into categories according to the content of the responses. The categories generated by the three teams were compiled into a master list. Duplicate categories were deleted and categories with a great deal of overlap were combined.

The master list of categories was refined into a coding system which consisted of five general themes. The themes were further divided into subthemes. Table 1 includes a complete list of themes and subthemes. The original transcript was then entered into ATLAS.ti (Muhr, 1997), a data management program, and the transcript was coded line by line using the identified themes and subthemes. Participant responses were coded according to content and meaning within the context of the focus group discussion. Responses were assigned the best-fitting subtheme(s) and individual ideas were not assigned more than one subtheme.

The coded themes were analyzed according to frequency, extensiveness, and intensity (Krueger, 1998). Frequency was defined as the number of times that a topic occurred in the discussion. Extensiveness was the measure of how many different participants discussed a particular theme. In extensiveness, the number of participants was the unit of analysis; whereas the frequency analysis examined was the number of statements coded. Intensity, the third method of data examination, focused on the emotional content of the responses. This analysis attempted to note specific responses that were highly emotional, as indicated by the note takers in session or by the words used in the narrative. In addition, researchers took special care to note responses that clearly articulated the sentiments expressed by multiple participants, as well as outlier responses only expressed by one or two participants.


The participants' responses addressed five major themes: Negative Reaction to Home Culture, Personal Growth/Learning, Cultural Awareness/Diversity, Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture, and Adjustment. These five themes were broken down into specific subthemes which were analyzed according to frequency, extensiveness and intensity.

Negative Reaction to Home Culture

The Negative Reaction to Home Culture theme consisted of 13 subthemes and was the highest in frequency and extensiveness. Participants expressed negative reactions to several specific aspects of the home culture: International influence, materialism, hospitality, pace of life, sexuality, and spirituality. Students also discussed subthemes related to anger, guilt about living in the home culture, desire to disidentify with the home culture, awareness of the shortcomings of the home culture, and the desire for the home culture to be a better international role model. Participants' negative reactions were emotionally intense, reflecting personal anger, criticism and guilt.

The examination of frequency showed that 64 of the 156 coded items were assigned to this theme (41%). The most frequently mentioned subtheme, general anger at home culture, was coded 16 times. Also within Negative Reaction to Home Culture, negative home culture (general) and negative American materialism were coded 10 and 8 times respectively. This indicates that negative reactions, such as anger and dissatisfaction with materialism, occurred frequently throughout the focus group discussion.

Most participants expressed responses coded within the Negative Reaction to Home Culture theme. The examination of extensiveness showed that 9 of the 20 participants, or 45%, articulated responses coded as general anger at home culture. This code was the most extensively mentioned, especially by the male participants. Four of the five male respondents (80%) expressed anger toward their home culture, whereas 5 of 15 (33.33%) of the women expressed themes coded as anger. Three other subthemes within the Negative Reaction to Home Culture theme were mentioned by at least five participants (25%): negative American materialism, negative home culture spirituality and negative home culture (general). The negative home culture spirituality code was assigned to statements that were critical of American Christians or practices in American churches.

The third part of the data analysis procedure was to examine the transcript for intensity by considering the use of strong words, emotional language, and nonverbal indicators. Anger was a commonly expressed emotion. A male participant expressed intense anger concerning his feelings about his home culture during reentry, "It just made me disgusted to be an American and be part of the American society and to come back here and live in it ... really it's hard to verbalize all the anger coursing through my brain right now." A female participant reflected similarly intense emotions, "I also had anger when I first got back to the States. I was very upset at the hypocrisy of so many Americans and the shallowness we are very happy to live in."

Several students expressed difficulty identifying with their home culture, "For the most part, we told people we were Canadians. We wore Canadian patches, because everywhere we saw Americans ... Americans are totally, totally arrogant." A female participant, reflected intense dissatisfaction about American materialism and its reflection on her as an American traveling overseas, "It was just so sickening ... what you're representing, you know, money." Another participant also upset about her home culture's materialism demonstrated a disconnection between herself and the practices of the people in her family:
Not getting caught up in petty, little things, like modern conveniences
and all that stuff ... It's kind of frustrating just seeing the ways
that people would rather do something the easy way, like putting your
clothes in the dryer instead of hanging them outside. And sometimes I
look at my mom and think, 'you are really spoiled!'

Another student, expressed his negative view of the American church,
I think I was most upset at the church in America, because being there I
realized what the church is about and what it should be like, and ... I
come back to the US and I didn't see that same fire, passion, love or
connection with people, or any of that ... The American church has just
lost it.

Personal Growth/Learning

The Personal Growth/Learning theme included responses about the trip as a learning or growth-inducing experience. The nine subthemes included growth in personal, ethnic, and social group identity, spirituality, and vocational direction. Participants also reported challenges with existential questions about personal purpose in their home culture, as well as a desire to be agents of change within their home culture.

Personal Growth/Learning was the second most frequent theme. Of the 156 coded items, 38 (24.36%) were assigned to this theme. General personal growth/learning was coded eight times. Motivation to enact change in home culture, sense of purpose in home culture, and question of place in home culture were mentioned 6, 6, and 5 times respectively.

Personal Growth/Learning was also the second most extensive theme. Seven of the 20 participants, or 35%, discussed themes coded as general personal growth/learning making it the second most extensively mentioned code. Six participants, or 30%, mentioned sense of purpose in home culture. Four participants (25%) stated that their trips overseas challenged them to evaluate the social groups that they belong to (identity challenge-social group). Three participants (15%) questioned their place in their home culture; 3 talked about a renewed motivation to enact change at home; and 3 discussed the challenges to personal identity that they experienced as part of the trip.

The participants talked about many different types of learning and growth. Among the most intense were the discussions of belonging and purpose. One male participant articulated the challenge of integrating his trip with his identity as an American:
Why am I here in America? I don't know all the answers, but the one
thing I know is that there must be some purpose that I have, some reason
that I was born here. I could have been born in an Asian country or in
Africa or some other country. I know I benefit from this culture and I
don't understand why.

One female participant was surprised about the way her trip influenced her vocational goals and her perception of her place in the world:
I went on a trip wondering if I wanted to work with refugees, wondering
if I wanted to be a missionary ... but I actually ended up coming back
with a greater passion for the church in America.... It made me just
want to come back to the church and be here.

Some participants were challenged to rethink their American identity, for example, "I had to do a lot of identity searching. Like, who am I? Am I just an American or am I an American with Asian interests?" Several students who came from multicultural or biracial backgrounds reported unique difficulties with the cultural transition process: "I was frustrated with being caught in three cultures" and "I felt secluded because they made fun of me because I'm an American. The Americans make fun of me because I know Spanish."

Interestingly only one student talked directly about the personal spiritual growth that she experienced as a result of her mission trip. She commented, "God helped me find myself." Several other students mentioned about spiritual topics, mostly in relation to their sense of purpose.

Cultural Awareness/Diversity

Many participants expressed appreciation for the culture that they visited as well as a deepened understanding of the global community and international missions. The Cultural Awareness/Diversity theme included six subthemes: general cultural awareness/diversity, appreciation of specific other culture, elevation of other culture (over the home culture), hospitality of other culture, negative short-term missions, and positive missions.

Cultural Awareness/Diversity was third in frequency with 24 total subthemes assigned. General cultural awareness was coded 10 times, appreciation of specific other culture was coded 6 times and hospitality of other culture was mentioned 3 times.

As far as extensiveness, general cultural awareness was mentioned by four participants (25%), appreciation of specific other culture was mentioned by 3 participants (15%), and 2 (10%) participants mentioned hospitality of other culture.

Many of the participants were impressed with the strengths of the countries that they visited. Of particular note are this male's comments on the hospitality of Kenya:
Over there people would invite you in; people would like pull you in
from the streets and make you food. They'd go into debt and borrow milk
from their neighbor ... just so they could make you tea.... The people
in Kenya are the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Another male commented, "They had an incredible social atmosphere, they were never in a hurry." Many students commented on an increased awareness of cultural differences, "We're different, our culture is different. It's so weird because I knew that it was different than everyone else, but just keeping that in mind, that we're not the only culture and that everyone is not like us."


The Adjustment theme included six subthemes: general adjustment, general frustration, neutral reentry, debriefing, positive reentry, and negative reentry. This theme was fourth in frequency with 22 total coded items. Negative reentry was coded nine times, and general frustration was coded five times. The other subthemes were each assigned twice.

The examination of extensiveness showed that 3 participants (15%) mentioned negative reentry, and 3 participants (15%) mentioned general frustration.

Several participants indicated that reentry was an emotionally intense experience for them: "Coming back was very hard, I didn't want to come back," "It's like going through a really bad depression," and "For the first couple weeks I would just cry every day because it is so unfair that I have so much and they have so little." Some students reported that the cultural transition process was isolating for them, for example, "You come back to America and you feel like it's completely cold, like you're not connected to anybody."

Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture

The two subthemes in the Positive/Neutral Reaction to Home Culture theme were appreciation of home culture, mentioned three times by 3 different participants (15%), and realization of home culture influence mentioned five times by 4 participants (25%).

Some students reported positive changes in their perception of their home culture: "It helped me realize that there's great things about us, such as freedom and so on," and "I came back and I appreciated more about America than when I left."


When asked how short-term mission trips influenced their view of their home culture, student participants gave a variety of responses. The things that they experienced on their trips caused them to view their home culture critically, or with anger or guilt. Yet they reported that their experiences inspired personal growth and gave them new perspectives about personal purpose, belonging and calling. Their experiences increased their appreciation for other cultures and made them more aware of their country's place on the world stage. The students indicated that their trips involved several adjustments, and they noted the particular difficulty of reentry. Some respondents specified that their mission trip increased their appreciation for their home culture and helped them to see the benefits of being American.

The results from this student population confirm previous research findings indicating that anger and other negative reactions toward the home culture are a common part of reentry (Sussmann, 2000; Raschio, 1987). Negative Reaction to Home Culture was the most extensively and most frequently discussed theme, indicating that negative reactions were among the most salient for participants. The prevalence of themes reflecting general negativity, anger, and criticism support Sussman's theory that cross cultural experiences create an internal conflict between the cultural values of the home culture and the values of the culture of service. The Positive/Neutral Reaction to American Culture theme was the least extensively coded and only 3 participants discussed the appreciation for home culture subtheme.

Additionally, the findings appear to confirm that returned participants of short-term mission trips experience changes in cultural identity. The analysis indicated that many participants felt negatively about America and Americans. Since all of the participants were American citizens or long-term residents, it is reasonable to suggest that the critiques of their home culture created dissonance between their newly altered cultural identity and their culture. Student missionaries were forced to grapple with the realization that they and those they love are part of a culture that they feel negatively about. Many participants included themselves in their criticisms of American culture. Some used "we" language, while others included themselves more directly, such as "I'm totally guilty of it, but I'm still angry at it." Some individuals attempted to distance themselves from their American identity; for example, the participant who said that she pretended to be Canadian while overseas and the man who stated, "All the [American] tourists going over. It just made me disgusted to be an American and be part of the American society." Other students disconnected themselves from common aspects of their home culture, and even from their family members; for example, the participant that stated, "I look at my mom and think, 'you are really spoiled.'"

This study supports the theory that the disconnection between the experience abroad and identification with home culture can create a strong affective response during reentry (Sussman, 2000, 2001, 2002; Raschio, 1987). It is clear that many participants felt disconnected, angry or critical of their home culture. The high frequency of participants discussing negative experiences of reentry, the intensity of participants' descriptions of reentry, and the overt expressions of distress clearly establish the difficulty of reentry. The fact that the two themes emerged within the context of a question about individual perspectives of the home culture implies that the two constructs are qualitatively related. Although causation cannot be proven based on this study, the inference is that experiencing negative views of one's home culture in the context of a foreign culture are linked to negative affect during reentry to the home culture.

Considering that college students are in the midst of an important and often difficult phase of identity development, the effects of shifting cultural identity should be carefully attended to. The American College Health Association (2004) found that approximately 15.7% of college students have received a diagnosis of depression. Given the relative psychological vulnerability of this population, exposing students to the stress of cultural transitions and the potential for feelings of isolation and anger should be done with caution and provision of multiple levels of support.

It is import to note that, while participants expressed negative reactions, this study does not indicate that international short-term mission trips are negative experiences overall. All of the participants rated their overall experience as 5 or better on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from extremely bad (1) to extremely good (7). Participants reported personal growth and learning, as well as increased cultural awareness and understanding of diversity. Tuttle (2000) noted that college students identified being "stretched outside their comfort zone/culture shock" as an experience related to spiritual growth. In the current study, one of the most extensive subthemes was purpose in home culture, which implies that students were not disillusioned by their new perspective of their home culture, but felt a renewed sense of purpose. Other students experienced an increased passion or concern for aspects of American culture, such as Hollywood and the American church. Interestingly only one student talked directly about spiritual growth. Given the evangelical nature of their international experiences, it is somewhat surprising that spiritual themes were not more prominent. Perhaps the critical reactions toward the home culture are not "bad" for cultural identity, but are part of a healthy critical perspective and the formation of a rich, more internationally aware cultural identity.

Study Critique

In the midst of the unique opportunity for depth of conceptualization, qualitative research does have the limit of small sample size. It is important to note that the breadth of information and results reported above is based on the experience of 20 student participants. Another weakness of the focus group design is that individual responses are influenced by others. Facilitators' biases communicated through nonverbal cues and verbal reactions can influence the direction of responses. The other group members also influence an individual's response. The first person to respond sets the tone for the group, and many of the subsequent responses express agreement or opposition to the remarks of the first respondent.

Another potential weakness of the study design is the use of multiple, conceptually-related focus group questions. The question used for this study was the sixth of seven focus group questions. As mentioned earlier, the questions were developed to facilitate discussion of mission experience and cross cultural reentry. Therefore, responses to earlier questions contained themes related to view of home culture and cultural identity. Rather than repeating a previous answer, participants may have responded to the sixth question with a secondary concern or may have shifted their answer to the question based on the discussion that took place in response to the previous questions.

One additional confound was the presence of the program director during approximately half of one focus group. Given his position of authority, it is possible that participants tailored their responses to be socially desirable, perhaps by minimizing their amount of distress or focusing on issues that they perceive to be important to the director. The focus groups were conducted after the selections had been made for the next summer's short-term teams, so none of the participants were under direct evaluation or consideration for a position at the time of the focus groups.

An important additional limitation is that the study participants were all college students within a particular age group (ages 19-25) and developmental stage. Information on marital status was not requested in order to protect confidentiality, but presumably the vast majority of the participants were not married. Late adolescent college students may be uniquely sensitive to cultural identity challenges than adults at other developmental levels. More research is needed to better understand how age and development affect cultural identity. Until this is better understood, the results of this project should not be generalized to other populations without caution.


However, keeping the limitations in mind, the following recommendations may assist student mission leaders in facilitating the shifts in cultural identity that accompany cultural transitions.

1. Educate student missionaries about stresses that may accompany cultural transitions and prepare students for the possibility of shifts in cultural identity.

2. Inform students that reentry is part of the cross cultural experience and let them know that experiences of social isolation and negative feelings about their home culture may be a normal part of their experience when they return.

3. Strive to help students achieve an integrated cultural identity, one that encompasses negative and positive components of both the home and visited cultures.

4. Provide support during reentry to ease possible feelings of isolation and allow students to discuss their experiences.

5. Frame the short-term missions experience within a larger context that continues to explore student's experiences of purpose, belonging and calling and gives students opportunities to utilize the personal growth and knowledge acquired on the trip.

Suggestions for Future Research

Further research is needed to explore how cultural identity directly influences the reentry process. Additional questions and opportunities for clarification can contribute to a deeper understanding of the individual experience of cultural identity during reentry. For example, using a focus group design, good follow up questions could be "How does your negative view of America and Americans affect your view of yourself?" and "How do feel about your own American identity and American citizenship?" It is also important to assess individuals of different ages, cultures, and marital status. In addition, the finding that some people experienced positive changes in cultural identity suggests the need to understand why their outcomes were different. It is also important to learn whether negative reactions during reentry are associated with negative outcomes such as depression, or anxiety.


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WALLING, SHERRY M. Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182. Degree: MA.

ERIKSSON, CYNTHIA. Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degree: Ph.D.

MEESE, KATHERINE J. Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182. Title: Assistant Professor of Psychology. Degree: Psy.D.

CIOVICA, ANTONIA. Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182. Degree: M. A.

GORTON, DEBORAH. Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182. Degree: M. A.

FOY, DAVID W. Address: Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Pepperdine University: Encino Graduate Campus, 16830 Ventura Blvd., Suite 200, Encino, CA 91436. Title: Professor of Psychology. Degree: Ph.D.

APPENDIX A Focus Group Questions

The focus group interview included the following questions:

1. How did working with the people you served influence your experience (children, adults, mixed children and adults)?

2. What changes have you experienced since returning from your trip(s) (i.e., emotional, psychological, interpersonal, etc.)?

3. Describe your most rewarding experience on your mission trip(s).

4. Describe your most distressing experience on your mission trip(s).

5. How did your most distressing experience on your trip(s) influence your spirituality?

6. How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?

7. How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of other cultures?


Graduate School of Psychology

Fuller Theological Seminary


Graduate School of Education and Psychology

Pepperdine University

Authors are currently affiliated with the Headington Program in International Trauma at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary. This manuscript represents a Master's Project completed under the mentorship of Cynthia Eriksson, Ph.D. Correspondence concerning this article may be directed to Sherry M. Walling, Headington Program, School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 180 N. Oakland Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. E-mail:
TABLE 1 Frequency and Extensiveness of Subthemes Grouped by Node

 (N = 156) Extensiveness
 % (N = 20)
Node and code names n subthemes n % participants

Negative reaction to home culture
General anger at home culture 16 10.26 9 45
Negative home culture (general) 10 6.41 5 25
Negative home culture materialism 8 5.23 6 30
Negative home culture spirituality 7 4.49 5 25
Negative home culture sexuality 4 2.56 3 15
Negative home culture pace 3 1.92 2 10
Negative home culture hospitality 3 1.92 3 15
Negative home culture influence 3 1.92 2 10
Home culture to improve as model 3 1.92 2 10
Guilt about home culture 3 1.92 2 10
Comparative needs of home culture 2 1.28 2 10
Negative foreign identity 1 .64 1 5

Personal growth/learning
Personal growth/learning (general) 8 5.23 7 35
Sense of purpose in home culture 6 3.85 6 30
Desire to enact change in home culture 6 3.85 3 15
Question of place in home culture 5 3.21 3 15
Identity challenge -- social group 4 2.56 4 20
Identity challenge -- personal 4 1.92 3 15
Identity challenge -- ethnic 2 1.28 2 10
Positive spirituality 1 .64 15
Vocational direction 1 .64 1 5

Cultural awareness/diversity
Cultural awareness (general) 10 6.41 4 20
Appreciation of specific other culture 6 3.85 3 15
Positive hospitality of other culture 3 1.92 2 10
Elevation of other culture 2 1.28 2 10
Positive missions 2 1.28 2 10
Negative missions 1 .64 1 5

Negative reentry 9 5.77 3 15
Frustration (general) 5 3.21 3 15
Adjustment (general) 2 1.28 2 10
Reentry (general) 2 1.28 1 5
Positive reentry 2 1.28 1 5
Debriefing 2 1.28 1 5

Positive/neutral reaction to home culture
Realization of American influence 5 3.21 4 20
Appreciation of home culture 3 1.92 3 15
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Title Annotation:psychology of theology research; includes statistical table
Author:Foy, David W.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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