Over the course of my 10-year tenure as an administrator in study abroad, I’ve always found a dearth of program offerings for American students in developing countries. Raised in Nigeria and having worked as an ESL instructor in Shanghai, I can openly admit that educational systems in the developing world have their challenges. And poverty porn, which gives more media attention and focus to the poorer areas of these countries, has contributed to academic tourism in ways that leave me wondering if charitable activities rather than academics are the centerpiece of studying abroad in the developing world.
As a study-abroad administrator, I’ve observed over the years that advising on credit transfers, in-country travel, customs and culture in the classroom environment are easier to articulate for international-education advisers who are discussing study-abroad opportunities in Europe. But when it comes to explaining the aforementioned in developing countries, things get a bit murky. For example, I was often left scrambling through an internet search engine when asked questions like: “As a U.S. study-abroad student, is a different visa required every time I want to travel to another country in Africa?” Or “What kind of credit system is used in Ghana?”
Europe consistently ranks as the most popular study-abroad destination for students in the United States. During 2015-16, more than 50 percent of study abroad activity took place in Europe. And while there are a number of two- or three-week study-abroad programs in developing regions, when I look at the portfolio of more immersive opportunities, such as semester exchanges for U.S. students, the number of options in such countries generally pales in comparison to those in the developed world.
One of my job responsibilities during my professional introduction to the field in 2009 was to increase minority participation in study abroad at my university. And while I’m now, 10 years later, at a different university in a different position, as a person of color in the field, I still feel that is an underlying expectation. Although I am up for the challenge, the question is how?
Despite the major strides that have been made to increase study-abroad participation among students of color through scholarship initiatives, increasingly seamless federal lending practices and targeted recruitment efforts, nothing seems to change. White students made up 72 percent of the study-abroad population in the United States in 2015-16, whereas black students made up just about 6 percent. As administrators we have worked on the affordability barrier, the “I don’t have time” barrier, the credit-transfer barrier and, in some instances, the formidable “I don’t want to miss the football or basketball season” barrier. It’s worth asking whether we as study-abroad professionals need to tackle the barrier of disinterest next. Would developing international programs that truly reach the hearts of minority students and stimulate their intrigue be a step in the right direction?
Heritage programming may be one answer to that question. It is a study-abroad experience that relates to one’s personal history and culture. Research has shown that Asian-American/Pacific Islander students and Latino/a students may view heritage as their first priority when selecting a study-abroad destination. And an additional research project conducted with black students who studied abroad in Ghana indicated that they chose their host country because they were motivated by a quest to discover their personal history and roots.
One of the students with whom I’ve worked is a case in point. Eméfah Loccoh was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., to a father from Togo, in West Africa, and a mother from Grand Junction, Tenn. Loccoh remembers her father, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, taking her to visit his home in Togo when she was 5 years old. That is where her interest in other cultures began.
Years later, Loccoh returned to Togo to study abroad at Village de Benin after her freshman year in college. She then studied abroad for a second time at the University of Nice in France. When asked if one study-abroad experience had more impact on her than the other, Loccoh responded, “They were both very impactful! I appreciated them both in different ways. However, as a student of color, I would recommend West Africa to black students. The African-Americans who I know that studied abroad in Africa returned with a greater sense of identity and an enhanced desire to succeed.” She described how some of her friends have had their DNA tested to determine where their ancestors could have potentially originated from in Africa and then used that information to study abroad in that specific area.
Heritage programming offers numerous benefits to the field of study abroad. The price tag of heritage programs alone could incentivize students who grapple with issues of affordability. For example, the cost of tuition, room and board at the University of Ghana adds up to about $2,000 a semester -- substantially less than most in-state tuition rates in the United States. Similar pricing can be found at universities in countries such as Haiti, Jamaica and Thailand. And outside the academic expenses, the cost of living is generally lower in these regions, allowing for more affordable extracurricular activities -- such as domestic travel and cultural excursions -- which add to the allure of studying abroad.
By no means am I saying that by presenting study-abroad options on the continent of Africa, university administrators will witness participation rates among black students skyrocket. Nor am I saying that all minority students want to study abroad on heritage programs. But if university study-abroad operations do not have an adequate portfolio of program offerings that interest minority student demographics, the participation gap will be difficult to close.
A question that I’ve always asked fellow international affairs administrators is “Does your program’s study-abroad portfolio mirror the diversity of your student body?” Programming created with a specific demographic of students in mind is nothing new throughout the academy -- the Black Student Unions, Hispanic studies programs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are a few that come to mind. The efforts to provide specific demographic programming should continually expand to include heritage programming in university study-abroad operations.
Colleges and universities across the nation are pushing to increase diversity and inclusiveness among their faculty members and students. Study-abroad administrators’ contributions to those efforts could be in developing and promoting heritage programming for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.