Sailing Uncharted Waters: Adolescent Personality Development and Social Relationship Experiences During a Year Abroad

Henriette Greischel


Henriette Greischel, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany
Peter Noack, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany
Franz J. Neyer, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany

Personality development during adolescence has received considerable attention in the preceding decades. However, less is known about interindividual differences in intraindividual trajectories. Previous research suggested international mobility experiences as a context of differential development and revealed that such experiences catalyze personal and social development during young adulthood (Zimmermann & Neyer, 2013).
​Yet, despite its increasing commonness, scholars have widely neglected the role of international sojourns for adolescent development. Thus, our study focused on the question: How does spending a year abroad influence the personality and social relationship development of adolescents? To answer this question, we compared sojourning adolescents with those who stayed in Germany with regard to self-selection and socialization processes of personality traits. In addition, we examined social network fluctuation as a mechanism of personality change.

The role of international mobility in adolescent trajectories was studied using a prospective control group design comprising 457 sojourners (high school exchange students recruited via the American Field Service) and 284 control participants (German adolescents; 73.3% female; mean age = 15.63, SD = 0.78), all of whom were assessed three times across one academic year. Adolescents’ Big Five and peer relationship fluctuations were assessed at six weeks before departure, as well as two and seven months abroad. Multivariate probit regressions and latent change models were used to analyze selection and socialization effects, respectively. In addition, gains and losses of national and international peer relations were tested as mediators in these change models.

Before going abroad, sojourners demonstrated higher levels of Extraversion and Agreeableness, as well as lower levels of Neuroticism compared to controls. Longitudinal results revealed steeper increases in Openness and Agreeableness, as well as less increase in Neuroticism for exchange students. Results indicated that sojourners differed regarding their personality traits before they went abroad and continued to show differential trajectories toward socially desired trait levels later on. Sojourners’ social relationships showed higher fluctuation, which partially mediated sojourn effects on adolescent personality development.

We investigated international mobility as a meaningful context of differential trajectories to contribute to a bigger picture of personality development during adolescence. Going abroad for one year as an exchange student has become a global and increasingly common phenomenon in recent years and, therefore, deserves further attention. In our study, sailing uncharted waters played a meaningful role in adolescents’ personal and social development.

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