The Changing Face of Study Abroad

Putting Color Onto the White Canvas

If international experiences are becoming increasingly important to being competitive for jobs, it is vital to examine the racial disparity in access and participation in study abroad programs, argues Charles Lu.

February 23, 2016

“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.


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