A row of small flags from many different countries are arranged in a line through the grass.
An artistic array of flags stuck in the grass, designed by Liam (age 14).

One of the hallmark high-impact practices is engagement in diversity (AAC&U). Many campuses equate this to their study abroad experiences, which could be short-term, semester long, or combination programs. On our campus, Elon University, we have a high level of engagement in these experiences (Van Beek 2021), and it is an unwritten expectation that students will want to study abroad in some capacity. At the surface level, this is a really impactful experience we want to promote. In fact, there are funds set aside to support students who have financial barriers to access. But what does this messaging and culture say to students who have significant barriers to access beyond financial? We know that there are other potential barriers to studying away that we need to acknowledge (Levintova et al. 2020). How do we elevate those conversations and facilitate inclusive messaging?

What supports do our study abroad offices provide for students with disabilities who are trying to find programs that can accommodate their needs? When looking at many campus study abroad websites, the resources page for disabled students points to a policy page. While there may be support, the default responsibility falls on the student.

Some institutions have disability-friendly resources, putting support front and center (e.g., Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison; Univ. of North Texas; Western Michigan Univ.). I encourage your institution to look at what students with disabilities see when exploring support on your campus. What programs are wheelchair accessible? What countries have resources that can support physically disabled students? This conversation is different for students with learning disabilities who might need accommodations at the campus where they will be taking courses. How do we build those bridges to support? Whose responsibility is it? Some useful general websites to help students and study abroad offices navigate opportunities and experiences include: Abroad with Disabilities; Mobility International; and Diversity Abroad Resources.

I am a very strong advocate of making study away/abroad opportunities accessible and inclusive and breaking through the barriers we can anticipate will impact students in disabled populations. We should keep building the resources, pathways, and pipelines.

BUT . . . there is another side to this coin that we also need to discuss and highlight for students who these experiences are not appropriate for—no matter the reason. Dr. Longmire-Avital has highlighted how the global experience context impacts women of color and historically underrepresented students, and she highlights disparities in access and participation. Similar challenges have been identified for students from many social identities; here is a useful resource from IES abroad to start the conversation. We need to acknowledge the culture created when the study abroad experience is pedestalled as the premiere experience to meet the “diversity” high-impact practice goals.  Students clearly are able to meet the goals of the diversity high-impact practice in other ways, and we need to similarly highlight and support these experiences. Global experiences can, and do, happen in the local context as well as in virtual and blended contexts (Sturgill 2020; Deardorff and Whitehead 2020).

I am part of a multi-institutional think tank working on the topic of mentoring undergraduate research in the global context (MURGC). This community of practice has always defined global by the research questions and populations under investigation, not by location. Colleagues mentor student research that examines global issues in the local context. Two such projects are “The Role of the Religious Community on the Integration Process of East and Central African Refugees in Greensboro, N.C.” (Abernethy 2021) and “Negotiating Islamophobia: The Experiences of College-Age Muslims in North Carolina” (Oakes 2021). These projects were opportunities to deeply engage with communities to understand their experience integrating into the local context. These examples also highlight rich experiences engaging in a global context just a short drive away from campus. They can be sustained experiences that are mutually beneficial for the student and community partners, which is important for us to think about.

Similar experiences can happen on our campus for some students. When we assume that students need to go off our campuses and to other cultures to experience diversity, we have centered the majority experience as our campus experience. That is a problem.

I encourage us as faculty and academic leaders to consider our students’ experiences and think about how to lead and foster meaningful conversations with students about the cultural wealth they bring to our campuses—something that is often unappreciated, unrecognized, and marginalized. Starting with our students and laying out many options to engage in diverse and global topics—and decentering the study abroad experience as the ultimate—can help students with barriers to travel find, contribute to, and appreciate really rich opportunities right on our campus and within the local community.


AAC&U. n.d. “High-Impact Practices.” Accessed May 4, 2022. https://www.aacu.org/trending-topics/high-impact.

Abernethy, Michael. 2021. “#ElonGrad 2021 Spotlight: Sarah Jane McDonald, Religious Studies and International and Global Studies.” Today at Elon, May 24, 2021. https://www.elon.edu/u/news/2021/05/24/elongrad-2021-spotlight-sarah-jane-mcdonald-religious-studies-and-international-global-studies/.

Deardorff, Darla K., and Dawn Michele Whitehead. “Expanding the Perceptions and Realities of Global Learning: Connecting Disciplines through Integrative Global Learning and Assessment.” In Mind the Gap: Global Learning at Home and Abroad, edited by Nina Namaste and Amanda Sturgill, 151-162. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Levintova, Ekaterina, Sabine Smith, Rebecca Cruise, Iris Berdrow, Laura Boudon, Danm Paracka, and Paul M. Worley. 2020. “Have Interest, Will NOT Travel: Unexpected Reasons Why Students Opt Out of International Study.” In Mind the Gap: Global Learning at Home and Abroad, edited by Nina Namaste and Amanda Sturgill, 122-134. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019. “Study Abroad: A Critical Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Issue.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. August 6, 2019. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/study-abroad-a-critical-diversity-inclusion-and-equity-issue/.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019. “‘Where Are Your From?’: Studying Abroad while at the Intersections between an American and Racial Minority Status.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 3, 2019. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/where-are-you-from/.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019. “The Intersectional Context of Black Women Studying Abroad.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 5, 2019. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/intersectional-context-of-black-women-studying-abroad/.

Oakes, Julia. 2021. “With Award-Winning Research, Marjorie Anne Foster ’19 Seeks to Create Bridge between Different Religious Traditions.” Today at Elon, April 15, 2021. https://www.elon.edu/u/news/2021/04/15/with-award-winning-research-marjorie-anne-foster-19-seeks-to-create-bridge-between-different-religious-traditions/.

Sturgill, Amanda. 2020. “Crossing Borders at Home: The Promise of Global Learning Close to Campus.” In Mind the Gap: Global Learning at Home and Abroad, edited by Nina Namaste and Amanda Sturgill, 70-78. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Van Beek, Shannon. 2021. “Elon Ranked #1 in Study Abroad.” Today at Elon, November 15, 2021. https://www.elon.edu/u/news/2021/11/15/elon-ranked-1-in-study-abroad-9/.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “Ableism in Academia: Study Abroad Experiences.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. May 10, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-study-abroad-experiences.