The Real-Life Health Benefits Of Studying A Year Abroad

A new path
A new path
Fanny Jimenez

BERLIN â€" During the last school year, some 18,000 young Germans began year-long adventures abroad, thrust into complete independence: suddenly, they were on their own, in a new environment, surrounded by strangers who spoke a language the students had only experienced from inside the safety of a classroom.

Psychologists from Friedrich Schiller University in Jena were wondering if such an experience could actually have lasting, positive effects on an adolescent's personality, so they analyzed the experiences of more than 700 teenagers who had participated in some sort of school exchange program and compared them with those of classmates who’d stayed ay home. The results appear in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

According to the study, students who spent time abroad were more open-minded, self-aware and mature than their peers who had stayed behind. In reaching this conclusion, study authors Henriette Greischel, Peter Noack and Franz Neyer took into consideration that students who chose to go abroad may also have been slightly more extroverted than their classmates to begin with.

Nevertheless, an experience in another country did appear to reinforce adolescents’ receptiveness, emotional stability and intelligence: a year abroad promotes greater personal development, say the scientists.

This is particularly interesting for two reasons. First of all, personality is often said to remain pretty stable over an individual’s lifetime, barring significant events such as divorce or unemployment, which may cause noticeable and lasting changes.

Secondly, there haven’t been very many studies focused on what decisive factors shape personal development during puberty. The only well-established fact is that teenagers tend to wall themselves off during that time.

That’s what led psychologists Christopher Soto from Colby College and Jennifer Tackett from Northwestern University to refer to early adolescence as the “the lifetime peak of meanness, laziness, and closed-mindedness.” They reported that at the start of adolescence, people tend to become a lot more difficult, with their levels of conscientiousness and open-mindedness decreasing compared to that of younger children and adults.

Those who go abroad during these critical years, therefore, would benefit from a huge boost in development.

A year abroad requires teenagers to build a new social network from scratch â€" and friends are especially important reference points during adolescence, more so than family members. So those students who are able to come out of their shells, to feel comfortable in groups and even among strangers, ultimately have a wider circle of friends. And once they go home, they have no trouble slipping back into their previous social settings.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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