Establishing Equity in Study Abroad Experiences: Three Recommendations
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
Study abroad is still a high impact practice (HIP) with massive racial and ethnic disparities in participation rates and destinations. According, to NAFSA data, nearly 71% of students who study abroad identify themselves as white and 54% of study abroad destinations are located in Europe. Study abroad has been and remains a largely white-Eurocentric endeavor reinforcing majority viewpoints and amplifying the minority experiences. Thus, despite cultural differences between a majorities of US study abroad students and their host countries, most students are not experiencing a loss or shift in societal power that evolves out of holding a minority position. This also means that minority students are not escaping their positionality while abroad. Study abroad has never been nor will likely ever be the great equalizer. Student intercultural readiness and dexterity will not occur organically; it will develop as a result of intentional training and preparation before, during, and after their abroad experience.
In revisiting Willis’ (2015) research on the experience of Black women studying abroad and my previous blog post about my own experience, a series of recommendations have emerged. Using the experiences of my own students, all of whom can be identified as a historically underrepresented minority, I want to highlight the three recommendations that Willis leaves us with: (1) Travel peers; (2) Campus Climate, and (3) Critical Reflection.
The first, is travel peers. Willis describes the support the Black women in her study received from one another as critical for their survival and success. I had two honors fellows students, both Black women, who both in reflection of their time in the program stated, “There can’t just be only one.” The ability to have someone else that can empathize in real time with the struggle of being a historical minority and vulnerable to the same microaggressions generates a replenishing acceptance, comradery, and push to succeed. This peer fellowship enhances the study abroad experience. I think about my latest two students who both went abroad in their junior year. One went to a European destination, the other to Semester-at-Sea. The Black woman who went to Europe struggled with persistent microaggressions, othering, and isolation. No other Black student was with her. The one who went abroad via Semester-at-Sea, described her visits to mostly African countries as liberating and traveled with her friend who was also a Black woman. There are multiple layers to explain why these two students had vastly different experiences but for me I can’t help but focus in on the isolation. Further, this peer impact is enhanced when one of the travel peers has had previous study abroad experience. I think back to my own experience and remember the ease I felt that at least two of my friends on the trip (one of whom was a Black woman) had been abroad before. Many of the fears and frustrations I couldn’t and didn’t feel comfortable sharing with the faculty advisor found an outlet in my travel expert peers.
The notion of travel peers is not just about prior experience but also refers to having a diverse study abroad group of students. Given that 71% of the students going abroad are White and likely coming from a PWI, diversifying study abroad cohorts is a challenge. However, after reading Willis’ article, I believe partnerships with minority-serving-institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in study abroad programs could increase not only representational diversity but also engagement and intercultural skill development among all students – so long as the students of color do not have the role of educator forcibly placed on their backs.
I believe Willis (2015) views the campus climate as transportable among students to their study abroad destination. A campus that is highly segregated will not magically produce students who will resist the urge to seek out those pre-established groups while abroad. Students going abroad need formalized training on bias and intercultural/international readiness. What would it look and feel like to have an entire study abroad cohort trained in bias, allyship, and recognition of how privilege, power, positionality works in the country they intend to study in? Willis writes and I echo the need of pre, during, and post in-depth reflection. However, Willis points also to the need to consider re-entry beyond just reflection. We assume that study abroad is a transformative experience but we can’t expect that the campus climate the student left has changed. My student who went on semester-at-sea struggled with re-entry. Although, thriving in a historically white institution prior to her departure she could not accept the predominantly white climate when she returned. She went from being immersed in bustling populations of glorious color to the feeling of being the glaring minority again. In watching this process, I can only describe it as grief.
Finally, as I have stated in multiple blogs, a conscious faculty or staff member who aims to achieve a diverse learning environment that nurtures the student experience is paramount. For Willis, faculty who have received training themselves around intercultural awareness and bias are necessary. For me, that training is only sustainable if the faculty and/or staff members become what Willis refers to as critically self-reflexive. She asks her readers (i.e., faculty and staff) to consider how prepared they are to facilitate discussions on diversity and the historical as well as current context. She asks how prepared we are to confront bias, not just the form perpetrated by members of the host culture but perhaps more importantly by members of our own institutional community – including students. If we do not adequately prepare our own anti-racist, anti-otherness lens, then we can’t expect intercultural readiness from our students because we are not ready.
- Kuh, George W. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. American Association of Colleges and Universities.
- NAFSA. n.d. “Trends in U.S. Study Abroad”. Accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/trends-us-study-abroad
- Willis, Tasha Y. 2015. “And Still We Rise…”: Microaggressions and Intersectionality in the Study Abroad Experiences of Black Women. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 26, no. XXVI (Fall): 209-230.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.
How to cite this post:
Longmire-Avital, Buffie. (2019, December 17). Establishing Equity in Study Abroad Experiences: Three Recommendations [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/establishing-equity-in-study-abroad-experiences