Diversifying Study Abroad, the Data-Driven Way

During annual gathering of international educators, panelists discuss the underrepresentation of minorities in education abroad, among other topics.
May 29, 2008

Discussions during the second day of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. ranged from the concrete (various models for establishing international student houses -- their facilities, programs and budgets, for instance) to the abstract (just one example: how to "suspend belief" for a bit and re-imagine structuring study abroad as an academic department, with its own courses and faculty). At numerous sessions and poster presentations throughout Wednesday, panelists imparted their own thoughts on best, or at least, good, practices, and anecdotes and data on any number of issues related to international education.

At one session focused on the racial diversity of students studying abroad Wednesday morning, presenters emphasized a need to go beyond anecdotes and collect richer data in that domain.

The underrepresentation of members of racial minority groups among American students studying abroad is a persistent problem. According to Institute of International Education data on the subject stretching from 1993-94 to 2005-6, their proportional representation has barely changed in that time, pointed out David Comp, senior adviser for international initiatives at the University of Chicago. In 1993-94, for instance, Comp said, 83.8 percent of students studying abroad were Caucasian, compared to 83 percent in 2005-6. The proportions of Asian-American (5 percent in 1993-94 versus 6.3 percent in 2005-6), Hispanic-American (5 versus 5.4), African-American (2.8 versus 3.5), multiracial (3.1 versus 1.2) and Native American (0.3 versus 0.6) students all showed only slight changes, despite a variety of efforts in the interim to expand study abroad participation.

The University of Minnesota has based its efforts to increase the number of minority students studying abroad on campus-specific data about, among other things, student attitudes, knowledge and behavior. Gayle Woodruff, director of curriculum integration for Minnesota, explained that the institution’s Multicultural Study Abroad Group -- originally a grass-roots organization of about 25 multicultural affairs and study abroad professionals -- conducted a series of focus groups and student surveys, encompassing data from more than 4,000 individuals, in addition to completing a literature review.

Minnesota's Multicultural Study Abroad Group identified the more general barriers commonly cited in the literature to explain why minorities are underrepresented in study abroad, including that financial concerns are the primary obstacle, followed by connections to family, fear, and concerns about cultural barriers.

But beyond that, mining for richer information through surveys of sophomores and seniors, Minnesota researchers found, for example, that 88.5 percent of sophomores of color had a working knowledge of another language, while 74.7 percent of white sophomores reported the same. One of the primary perceived motivations for studying abroad is to learn another language, Woodruff pointed out -- but if students of color already, by and large, know one, perhaps their motivations differ?

Minnesota officials also found that African-American and Native American students were less likely to talk with an adviser about study abroad than other students were -- a finding that has allowed the university to target its efforts to focus, in part, on the advising piece. The university has also put diversity scholarships in place, and created a multicultural study abroad brochure and related Web sites, among other initiatives. “We really believe that data-driven decision-making is the key to any initiative,” Woodruff said.

NAFSA's annual conference continues through Friday.


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