American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation

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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

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Building diversity into education abroad programs by Connie Perdreau
Director, Education Abroad, Ohio University

Although there has been an increase in the participation of ethnically diverse student populations on U.S. study abroad and exchange programs, most predominantly white institutions would find it difficult to match the number of minority students on campus with a similar percentage of enrollment in their education abroad programs. According to the 1998-99 edition of Open Doors, the number of white/Caucasian students has risen in both numbers and total percentage rates from 83.8% in 1993-94 to 84.5% in 1997-98 (96,264). Minority student participation, including African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Native American, and Multiracial populations, while increasing in actual numbers has decreased in terms of overall percentage rates from 16.2% to 15.5% (17,695) of the total number of students abroad (113,959). As overall participation of white students in overseas programs has significantly increased over the last few years, it had been difficult to keep pace with equivalent increases in minority group participation on U.S. programs abroad, despite valiant efforts made by a number of education abroad administrators and faculty program directors.

Given the fact that most U.S. institutions profess to extending equal opportunity through affirmative action programs in faculty/staff hiring and student admissions decisions, it seems highly appropriate for those of us who administer and direct education abroad programs to begin concrete plans of action to address ways to build greater ethnic diversity into our programs. In order to achieve this goal, let us look at three critical areas: 1) barriers 2) self-study and 3) pro-active measures.

In terms of barriers, perhaps the greatest one is opening a student's mindset to the basic notion of leaving this country to pursue an experience abroad. This in itself is a formidable task if you are dealing with students of color, many of whom may be the first generation to attain a college education. The goal of these students is to get a college degree. Studying abroad is simply not on their radar screen and certainly not a part of what they envision as an integral part of their college experience.

Moreover, a student's mindset might actually be a negative one toward the idea of overseas study. This may occur if a student's home background does not include family members or friends who have been abroad or had some type of positive international experience. How open is the student to a new, unknown experience? How does the student herself feel about foreigners in the United States? How does this perception lend itself to the idea of the student venturing beyond U.S. borders?

Related to mindset is the feeling of apprehension often related to racial matters. Even if a student has some notion of studying abroad, anxiety or apprehension about the process may exist. Some study abroad students have confided to me that their greatest fear lies within the program itself; that is to say, there may be a degree of anxiety regarding inter-action with other program participants or interaction with the director. Will he/she be the only one in a sea of white faces? Will he/she be singled out in front of others by the program director? How will the other program participants treat them? Later on, there may be questions about conditions related to ethnicity in the host country, but, first of all, the possibility of some degree of pre-departure apprehension must be acknowledged. It is both sad and ironic, but unfortunately not unusual, for returnees to state that the only racism or perceived prejudice they encounter abroad is from other Americans.

Third, inadequate funding may likely be a primary concern of many students of color. In most cases, going abroad means additional expenses, and many middle and lower-income families feel they cannot afford to allocate greater resources to the already relatively high cost of funding a college education. Although federal forms of financial aid do apply to study abroad programs, this is often inadequate to cover the added costs of participation in an international program. Families without study abroad as a tradition may very well be reluctant to support a program which is not a requirement for their student's college education.

Finally, at the base of all the above barriers is the question of why a student should go abroad in the first place. If a student is not cognizant of the short-term and long-term benefits of an education abroad experience, she is not likely to take the critical first step of seeking study abroad information or counseling.

At this point, however, I must acknowledge the presence of another type of study abroad-bound student who appears to be a growing presence on all our campuses: students with a citizen-of-the-world mentality, and who, fortunately, come in every color. Such students need no recruiting; they enter college with the idea of going abroad; their parents willingly support them; and they have little or no apprehension about living in another country. Often foreign language or international affairs majors, they may possibly be unofficial members of groups known in education abroad as "global nomads" or "third country kids." These students have traditionally formed a small, but important core of many of our programs, and some of them are even minority students. The latter group often forms, in effect, a "built-in" diversity population. No special efforts are made to attract them; they just appear! They are the type of student we all wish we could clone.

The second critical area that must be examined to build more diversity in the base of participation in education abroad programs involves the office self-study. The education abroad administrator must take a very close and careful look at standard operating procedures at the institutional level and evaluate whether or not those policies, or the process itself, negates or reinforces the above barriers.

It would probably be a wise decision to form an ad hoc committee consisting of individuals on your campus with an interest or connection to your self-study to act as a sounding board and/or as contributors to the project. Included may be a staff person from your multicultural programs office, the affirmative action office, and the university admissions office, in addition to student activities representatives, returned minority students, an international student, and a faculty member of color associated with international programs. It is important to identify the key constituencies at your institution whose voices should be heard.

One might start the self study by assessing the current break-down of study abroad participants by race (and, possibly gender) and most likely find that the male student of color is the least well represented, given that females predominate as study abroad students. This information is extremely important in making the case for increased support for minority student participation in international study programs. However, it is certain that a number of us would not even be able to take this first step because we lack accurate data to identify the race and/or ethnicity of students. How can we have a goal of increasing under-represented groups unless we have a fairly accurate picture of current enrollments in our programs? In short, one needs to know where one stands before goals can be set and new directions taken.

Initially, one might start with assessing ways to track this information by making it an integral part of the orientation process. In this way, the administrator may begin to set a realistic goal of increasing diversity based on current enrollment in international study programs and overall enrollment at the institution. Moreover, it will be necessary to establish a breakdown of minority group status by specific group classification for accurate use and interpretation of generated data; e.g., African Americans should be counted separately from Asian Americans. By taking into consideration the size of the total potential pool of minority applicants from your institution and the number of minority students actually enrolled in your study abroad programs, one would ideally find the two enrollments to be roughly equivalent. One could also compare the number of overseas program participants of color in a given year with the number of degrees granted by the institution to minority students. If your program accepts students from other institutions, the number of minority students from the cooperating institution should be taken into account when assessing your goals.

The self-study should continue by examining all policies, practices and procedures that may possibly contribute to creating barriers for many students of color. Look carefully at selection criteria, recruitment policies, resources for financial aid and scholarships, and quality of advising.

Try to promote access in admissions. For example, if a student has less than a 3.0 grade point average and cannot qualify for a highly competitive program, is the student encouraged to seek admission to an alternative program? Furthermore, is a 3.0 grade point average inflexible as a criterion for admission to the program or can other compensatory factors in her background be considered?

Examine your recruitment and public relations efforts. For example, do your recruitment techniques include targeting mailings, publicity, flyers, and the like to identifiable individuals or groups of students of color? Mailing lists (e-mail or campus address) may be available through multicultural or equal opportunity program offices. Greek organizations or residence halls with large numbers of students of color may want to have a special presentation from a peer advisor who is a returned study abroad participant.

How recently have you spoken with your financial aid and scholarships staff about establishing special means of support for under-represented students on your programs? Have you approached academic department, college, or faculty representatives about this need? If you run into administrative roadblocks with regard to restricting funding to students of color, try establishing need-based means of support. Remember to bring data to support your case!

As for quality of advising, there is nothing that compares with one student of color talking to another about her study abroad experience. Quality, well-matched peer advising can work wonders for increasing diversity. Not only is there a role model available to explain how she made it through the process, but the peer advisor can provide answers to questions which would only be raised with another member of the group, such as how proper hair-care services are obtained while abroad.

Pro-Active Measures
The last activity that an education abroad office can take to increase diversity in participation of students of color involves taking pro-active measures, based largely on what has already been identified as barriers in addition to the results of your office self-study analysis.

This listing suggests measures. It in no way meant to be exhaustive, which may be further developed on your own campus:

Faculty and Staff

  • Encourage faculty of color to be hired as study abroad program directors
  • Hire education abroad staff members who are of color
  • Make sure you have minority group peer advisors on your staff
  • Communicate with faculty directors having larger than usual minority student participation on their programs. Identify the reasons for their success
  • Form an on-going advisory board of appropriate faculty and staff
  • Encourage faculty to diversify program destinations to include non-Western European host countries
  • Have at least one mentor for yourself - an informant, so to speak - on diversity issues at your institution

Outreach Activities

  • Connect with admitted students of color on their first trip to campus in pre-college or freshman orientation activities
  • Communicate with the parents of students of color in pre-college activities
  • Show students of color in publicity about your programs
  • Send representatives from your office to appropriate minority student fairs and organizational activities
  • Try to include minority students in recruitment, orientation, and re-entry activities
  • Send your program materials to organizations, clubs, and offices which have high minority student presence
  • Be prepared to answer or have someone available to answer questions which may arise regarding racial or ethnic issues on campus or abroad
  • Try to continue communication with minority students after graduation; some returned students may consent to be alumni mentors
  • See if your institution can produce local or campus radio and television programs focusing on the international experience acquired by students of color in your programs
  • Be ready to provide student reporters with the names of minority students who would be good subjects for campus newspaper articles
  • Organize a panel presentation about International Career Opportunities for Students of Color; include returned students and alumni, if possible
  • Encourage a returned student of color to organize a re-entry group which would focus on processing their experiences abroad and re-adjusting to the U.S.

Funding and Support

  • Be sure both students and parents are well-informed about the applicability of the student's financial aid package to study abroad and that information about special scholarships is made available
  • Work with your financial aid officer on development of informational material specifically geared to the minority student and the availability of specially designated scholarships
  • In communicating with alumni of color, see if there is interest in establishing a named alumni scholarship fund for study abroad
  • Offer students an array of choices in terms of country of study, term of study, and cost of program. Often short-term programs are a more viable, cost-affordable option
  • Investigate options on your campus to provide minority student support for study abroad through both new and already existing sources of funding. For example, if there are ten minority scholarships available through the admissions office or another funding unit, can one scholarship be set aside for a study abroad student?
  • Let students know about all their education abroad options. Internships, work, and volunteer options may be more attractive choices for some students. Students may also seek to combine several options into one package, for example a study abroad-work experience.

I would like to invite readers of this essay to submit suggestions to me of pro-active steps that have worked on their campus. This material will be shared in future writings, and you will be credited for your submission. My e-mail address is:

Suggested References

Black Students and Overseas Programs: Broadening the Base of Participation. Council on International Educational Exchange, 1991.

Connected: Careers for the Future, A Guide to International Careers for Young People of Color. (Video and Discussion Guide). Globalvision, 1997. (The International Center for Global Communications Foundations, 1600 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY. 10019)

Increasing Participation of Ethnic Minorities in Study Abroad. Council on International Educational Exchange, 1991.

Minorities On Campus: A Handbook for Enhancing Diversity. American Council on Education, 1989.

One Third of a Nation:A Report of the Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life. American Council on Education, 1988.

Next article: Safety and Security Issues and Their Impact on the Study Abroad Field by Nancy Stubbs

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