Courtesy of Torian L. Lee
Courtney Peavy, a student at Tuskegee University, had no plans to study abroad in college. She thought it would be too expensive and didn't want to burden her parents with the additional costs.
But Peavy's plans changed after she took a class with Rhonda Collier, an English professor who also directs the Alabama university's global office and organizes an international education fair every semester.
Collier had her students attend the fair. Peavy went and learned that studying abroad was not as out of reach as she thought and that there were many ways to pay for it.
"I was just inspired," Peavy said of realizing that "I could potentially have the opportunity to go somewhere, if it was Africa or the Virgin Islands, anywhere."
During the fair, Peavy had stopped at the table of Global Incite, a study abroad provider founded by a Tuskegee alumnus, and picked up an application. Collier, for her part, applied for and received a $20,000 grant from Delta Airlines' foundation to support the travel of several students, including Peavy.
The next thing she knew, Peavy was flying to South Africa to study abroad. "That was a chance of a lifetime. We had the opportunity to go and pay out of pocket little to nothing."
Peavy and her classmates are part of a growing number of students from historically black colleges and universities like Tuskegee who are studying abroad. While they traditionally study abroad at lower rates than the general student population, a total of 2,036 students from HBCUs studied abroad in 2015-16 compared to 1,605 students in 2013-14, according to statistics from the Institute of International Education (IIE), which does an annual survey of study abroad enrollments.
The increase is noteworthy because African American students are generally underrepresented among students studying abroad: black students make up about 14 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education but account for just 5.9 percent of students studying abroad. And at HBCUs, just 3.4 percent of students study abroad during their undergraduate careers, compared to a 10.4 percent participation rate for students across all institutions nationally, according to the IIE.
At Tuskegee, Collier said the institution sent about 65 students abroad this past year, up from 32 in 2015, when she took the position directing the global office.
"We were pretty much a fledgling office," Collier said. "One of my goals was to bring to the world to the classroom, the classroom to the world, and to make sure that the students had study abroad opportunities." (This paragraph has been corrected to accurately reflect that Collier's use of the adjective 'fledgling' referred to the office in 2015.)
Still, HBCUs face a number of challenges even as they seek to grow these opportunities. A research brief on increasing diversity in study abroad published in 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania Center for Minority Serving Institutions notes that MSIs in general -- a group that includes HBCUs -- are more likely to educate first-generation and low-income students who face significant financial barriers to studying abroad, as well as other barriers including lack of support from family members for studying abroad, fears of experiencing racism abroad and difficulties finding programs or program locations of interest or relevance to them. The Penn brief also discusses the fact MSIs often have their own financial challenges that prevent them from allocating resources to study abroad staffing or things like program development, curriculum integration and travel risk management.
The Penn Center for MSIs is partway into a three-year partnership with CIEE, a study abroad provider, to help grow study abroad enrollment at MSIs through workshops for faculty and college presidents and the provision of scholarships, funded from donated exhibitor revenues from CIEE's annual conference.
“There aren’t necessarily that many study abroad programs at MSIs. One of the things we’re doing is trying to enhance that area," said Marybeth Gasman, the Judy & Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for MSIs. "A lot of times students don't even get these opportunities."
For those HBCU students who do study abroad, their travel profile is different than that of study abroad participants across all institutions nationally.
For one thing, students from HBCUs are much more likely to participate in short-term programs that last eight weeks or fewer: 86 percent of HBCU students studying abroad do so for short durations, compared to 63 percent of students across all institutions, according to statistics from IIE. And while more than half of all American students studying abroad go to Europe, the top regional destination for HBCU students is Latin America and the Caribbean, and the mix of locations is much more diverse. The top five countries that students at HBCUs travel to are China, South Africa, Spain, Colombia and France.
Study Abroad Participation in 2015-16, HBCUs vs. All Institution
|Number of Students Studying Abroad
|Percent Who Study Abroad as Undergraduates
|Percent Who Study Abroad for Short-Duration (Programs of 8 Weeks or Fewer)
|Top Country Destinations
|China, South Africa, Spain, Colombia, France
|United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, Germany
|Top Regional Destinations by Percentage Participation
Latin America and the Caribbean: 35%
Middle East and North Africa: 3%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 18%
Latin America and the Caribbean: 16%
Middle East and North Africa: 2%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 4%
Source: Institute of International Education
Among the factors driving the increase of study abroad by students of color is the chance for them to connect to their ancestral history.
"One of the patterns amongst students at HBCUs or minority institutions is that we see that students are much more interested in what one might consider heritage-related programming, which is why we see a lot of students from HBCUs going to Latin America and the Caribbean as well as to sub-Saharan Africa," said Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser for research and strategy and director of the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research & Impact.
“I think there’s a realization in our field that students all come from different backgrounds and there are different sorts of things that attract us. The traditional study abroad programs have by and large mimicked each other and may have not been built asking the question, is this the kind of program that will appeal to African American students? ” said Andrew Gordon, the CEO and founder of Diversity Abroad, a consortium of institutions focused on increasing participation of students from underrepresented backgrounds in study abroad.
"If you’re looking to target certain types of populations that haven’t gone, it’s worth asking what kind of program will attract different students. The black student population isn’t monolithic, but are there some broad themes that would appeal to students at HBCUs or African American students in ways that a general program wouldn't?"
Some institutions are intentionally designing programs to cater to this interest, and have teamed up with study abroad provider organizations to this end. Howard University is working with a study abroad provider, CET Academic Programs, to develop a program in Colombia on Afro-Colombian culture. The program is set to launch next spring and will be open to students at all institutions.
Tonija Hope Navas, the director of the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at Howard University, said the partnership with CET is “an attempt to create a study abroad program that focused specifically on race, ethnicity and identity primarily because most study abroad programs have predominantly white women who participate, and the study abroad providers are, for the most part, catering to that demographic. And so the course offerings are sometimes very Eurocentric and not speaking to our students.”
“Our students choose to come to an HBCU for a specific reason, and when they go on study abroad programs they’re choosing to leave an HBCU environment, which they specifically chose, and are entering a PWI [predominantly white institution] program. The creation of the program with CET in Colombia is an attempt to develop a program that speaks very specifically and directly to our students but with the hope and expectation that it wouldn’t serve only our students,” Navas said.
In 2014 the School for International Training, a study abroad provider, partnered with Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, to develop a new semester-long program, New African Diasporas, that takes students to Senegal, Italy and France. A federal grant worth $373,421 over three years paid for things like program development and promotion, scholarships, and the provision of Wolof language classes at Morehouse.
“If we’re looking to increase the participation in study abroad of underrepresented groups or students at HBCUs, we as a provider and as an organization that develops programs should be mindful of themes and of curricular areas that are of interest to that group,” said Mory H. Pagel, SIT’s director of university relations. The New African Diasporas program has now run for two different semesters, with 17 students enrolled one semester and 12 the other. The first time the program ran, more than half the students came from HBCUs -- including four from Morehouse -- while the second time no students from Morehouse participated and the proportion of HBCU participants dropped to 15 percent. Both times more than 80 percent of participants in the program were nonwhite.
HBCUs have also designed their own programs focused on race, Africa or the African diaspora. Morehouse has what it considers to be a signature program, the Morehouse Pan-African Global Experience, which "supports the college’s unique mission and commitment to Africa and the diaspora."
Xavier University of Louisiana developed a short-term program focused on the African diaspora in Martinique last spring, funded partially with a $5,000 grant from Generation Study Abroad and the French Embassy, and just took a group of 10 incoming freshmen to Cuba for a short-term program focused on the African diaspora there.
“As an institution, I think it’s important that we remind students through our offerings that learning about African American culture and the African diaspora throughout the world is very important in producing future leaders,” said Torian L. Lee, the director of Xavier’s Center for Intercultural and International Programs.
That's not to say that HBCUs frown on students visiting countries not located in the African diaspora or related to African American history. In fact, China has also become a major destination for HBCU students going abroad, likely in large part due to the significant amount of Chinese government-funded scholarships available. In 2014 the China Education Association for International Exchange signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of HBCUs pledging 1,000 scholarships for their students to study in China.
David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, chairs the consortium of HBCUs charged with implementing those scholarships. He estimated that about 800 scholarships had been awarded to HBCU students to study in China to date.
“In terms of our overall study abroad, we have just made tremendous strides over the last six or seven years," Wilson said of Morgan's own efforts. He said 115 students studied abroad in the past year compared to "three or four students" who did so when he first arrived at Morgan in 2010. (A Morgan spokesman said while there was some Fulbright Scholar-related travel in 2010, the university's first recorded study abroad numbers are from 2013, when 13 students went on a faculty-led program to Oaxaca, Mexico).
"This is quite an achievement for us to break the 100 mark,” Wilson said. "This is really in alignment with our quest at Morgan to spread our wings around the world and imbue our students with experiences that will enable them to understand different cultures, different histories, different religions around the world."
Leading the pack among HBCUs in terms of study abroad participation is Spelman College, a women's college also located in Atlanta, where the number of students studying abroad rose from 218 in 2012 to 406 in 2018, according to Dimeji Togunde, Spelman's associate provost for global education and a professor of international studies. Spelman's center for global learning is endowed with an anonymous $17 million gift, and the college gave $230,000 in scholarships for study abroad last year.
"The goal at Spelman is to have every student have a study abroad experience before graduation," said Togunde. He said that the proportion of students who have a global experience before graduating currently stands at 75 percent.
"Whether HBCU or non-HBCU, we stack up with any college in the country," Togunde said. "We are a leader in international education."
From the perspective of a more fledgling office, Collier, of Tuskegee University, said that price is an important factor for her students. Programs in Latin America and elsewhere in North America tend to be cheaper; she said, and a short-term program the university offered in the Dominican Republic for the price tag of just $1,500 was one of the most popular programs ever -- 14 students enrolled.
Collier described the experience of study abroad as potentially transformational, regardless of where students go.
“I’ve had students go to Ireland, and when they come back they’re so shocked that there are other people of color in Ireland, that Ireland is diverse and they would never have thought of Ireland in this way,” she said. “That’s an amazing experience for a young person of color who goes to school in the rural South. That opens up their world. But then for another student to go to Africa and feel like they connected with their ancestral history, that’s a transformative experience as well.”