Submitted by Charles Lu on February 23, 2016 - 3:00am
The Changing Face of Study Abroad
“Me? Study abroad? I thought that was for rich white girls who wanted to get drunk in Paris on Daddy’s dime.” That was a response made by a first-generation African-American student at the University of Texas at Austin who was approached about studying abroad. Unfortunately, it is a common perception among many low-income, first-generation students of color about the purpose of study abroad and who has access to international opportunities.
According to the 2014 Open Doors data that the Institute of International Education released, students studying abroad are at an all-time high. In the 2012-13 academic year, 289,408 American students studied abroad, which is more than double the number of students who studied abroad 15 years ago. Even still, less than 10 percent of American students are studying abroad, which is disproportionately low compared to the increase in the number of international students coming to study in America.
As many alumni of study abroad programs will attest, studying abroad is one of the most reflective and intrapersonal ways of gaining the knowledge, skills and mind-sets to be successful in the modern global economy. It teaches students how to solve problems, think creatively, adapt to cross-cultural situations and reflect on their own biases and archetypes.
Just recently, a new study commissioned by the European Union found that students in Europe who study abroad are more likely to find jobs and reach management positions. In addition, research by IES Abroad, an organization that has offered more than 1,200 study abroad courses, found that graduates of a four-year college or university in the United States who have studied overseas have earned, on average, higher salaries. As Allen E. Goodman, the president and CEO of IIE put it, international experience is one of the most important components of a 21st-century résumé.
If international experiences are indeed becoming increasingly important to being competitive for jobs, it is vital to examine the racial disparity in access and participation in study abroad programs. In the past five years, black students only accounted for 5 percent of all students studying abroad. Similarly, Hispanic and Asian students made up only 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of students going abroad.
Some initiatives, like Generation Study Abroad and Diversity Abroad, are already tackling this issue by dispelling myths about study abroad and making international opportunities more accessible through scholarships and internships. These are useful top-down approaches that address diversity in study abroad in broad strokes.
Yet another method of increasing students of color engaging in international experiences is through a grassroots approach at individual colleges and universities. A faculty-led study abroad program at the University of Texas at Austin is one such example.
In a collaboration between the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Study Abroad Office, Leonard N. Moore, a professor of history and senior associate vice president for campus diversity, and I have led study abroad trips to Beijing and Cape Town for the past three years. The programs have attracted primarily low-income, first-generation students of color, and have brought many students to destinations where they never thought they would go.
What’s the secret to getting underrepresented students to study abroad? Here are seven key ways in which higher education institutions can get more students of color to invest in international opportunities:
Encourage popular faculty members who have strong relationships with students of color to lead study abroad programs. Many students who traveled abroad on the trips said they cared more about who was leading them than where they were going.
Actively target and encourage underrepresented students to participate. Many of the students in the program indicated they would have not applied had they not been contacted and explicitly told about the benefits of this study abroad program. With certain students who were more resistant, Moore persistently encouraged them until they pulled the trigger and hit “submit” on their application.
Ensure the faculty leader has a predeparture orientation. Moore was able to market his program to students because he went to Beijing for a week to evaluate the residence halls, facilities and sites. He could testify with credibility about what the students were going to see and do in China.
Focus the program on a topic that will make students more marketable in the workplace. Many students of color perceive study abroad as an expensive field trip with no tangible benefits. Make sure that study abroad topics are student centered and advertised in a way that will explicitly show the professional development experiences to be gained.
Keep the length of study abroad programs manageable. Most of the students said that they would not have participated in the program had it been any longer because it would have conflicted with their degree plans. In addition, they could not have afforded it. UT’s study abroad programs occupy only half the summer, so students can still take summer classes or complete an internship during the second half.
Prioritize diversity and work with other university units to provide scholarship opportunities for students. Our program was able to attract and retain students of color because the university, study abroad office and various academic support programs for diverse students worked closely together to recruit and work with underrepresented, low-income and first-generation college students.
Provide some form of financial assistance or scholarship. At UT, institutional and external grants made that possible. Several of the students still had to take out loans or find other methods to finance the entire study abroad trip. But they ended up going because the scholarship monies they received made the experience financially manageable.
According to Moore, “the amazing thing is that every student we bring abroad will come back and tell their brothers, sisters, cousins, classmates and friends about the time they had to use gestures to order food off a Chinese menu, or the time they got lost on the subway and they had to find their way back. These stories are the ones that will change the rhetoric around who can and will study abroad.”
In fact, since the inception of these programs, students have returned month after month to tell us how their international experiences informed their personal and academic lives. One student discussed how she was more understanding of the language barrier her international teaching assistants struggled with. Another student decided to major in a foreign language because he realized how marketable those skills could be in building his own business. These stories demonstrate the power and impact of encouraging diverse students to study abroad.
Charles Lu is executive director of the Gateway Scholars and Summer Bridge programs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Much of the student travel at my former institution, a traditional liberal arts college, involved semesters at Oxford, or in Florence, or maybe someplace with easy access to Australian beaches. At my current place, a teaching-intensive public institution where students are mostly Pell-eligible, first-generation or students of color (and many are all three), international study can be just as important. But it often takes very different forms.
More than 90 percent of the students at my institution grew up in this region and will spend their working lives here. Most have never been out of the country, and many have never left southern New England. That means that we have to create quite different travel opportunities for our students than does the liberal arts college down the road, whose students are much more likely to have passports.
What I explain to job candidates when they come through my office is that our longstanding connections with other countries and their higher education institutions tend to be mission centered. Now, that's not a phrase that many new Ph.D.s have encountered at their graduate institutions. The mission at a doctoral institution doesn't tend to be a topic of discussion for graduate students, and I'm not sure how much missions differ amongst R1 institutions. (I see that my alma mater's mission indicates its desire to be a "world leader in professional, medical and technological education").
But at my regional comprehensive university, we take seriously the official mission of the institution to "support and advance the economic and cultural life of the region" as well as the mission enshrined in the university's strategic goals: that the university "serve as an agent of social justice, instilling in all members of the university community a deeper understanding of the impact they have on the greater good and our world."
Part of my job as a dean is to help job candidates and new faculty members understand that strategic goals and mission can actually mean something. So when I try to sell them on the opportunity to take students abroad, I frame it in terms of our campus understanding of social justice. We take students every year, especially from our College of Education and Allied Studies, to Belize to work with the ministry of education there on a program to keep children and teens in school.
Meanwhile, biology majors and others go to Cambodia every year to work on clean water issues and do some English teaching. Anthropologists take students to Trinidad to work with community organizations on reforestation. Students go to, and come from, Cape Verde, where my university has played a key role in helping to establish the University of Cape Verde -- thanks to our former president, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants who has close ties both to our large local Cape Verdean population and the island itself.
What I want candidates to understand is that some of those trips may be in-and-out voluntourism, but all of them are part of a larger campus ethic not of noblesse oblige but of diversity and social justice -- and at a public institution. That's different, I think, from diversity and social justice goals at a private, tuition-dependent institution. When a public institution, with annual tuition and fees of $8,000, talks about diversity and social justice, it means offering a food pantry for its own students as well as offering students opportunities to serve others. We can't arrange study abroad opportunities that only privileged students can take up. We have to set up short-term trips so that students don't have to miss too much time at their jobs. And we have to try to subsidize the expenses, or we violate our own values.
Three of the faculty members in my college are trying to arrange a study tour to South Africa for our students. They have great ideas about it, involving studying nation formation and monuments and all kinds of historical and cultural investigation that can make for a great student experience. I went to South Africa myself this winter (on my own dime, not on state money), and I worked on setting up some contacts for us at the kind of institution that lines up with our students and our mission. But the toughest thing about setting up a way to take our students to South Africa will be figuring out how to get the costs down to a level at which our average student could think about going.
I'd be interested in hearing from readers about ways you make study abroad opportunities work for low-income students. Travel scholarships? Work opportunities that enable students to save for travel? Cost-saving arrangements with international universities?
I genuinely believe that if you can get students out of the country when they are 19 or 20 years old, their identities change. They become people who travel -- for the rest of their lives. And, goodness knows, we need more people who aren't afraid to go out and learn about someone else's culture.
Students who are at more elite institutions have many opportunities to do that, and their educations are the richer for it. Think about how much study abroad opportunities could enrich the undergraduate experience of the hardworking, not-so-privileged students who attend a regional public institution.
Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.