Study Abroad: A Critical Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Issue
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
As of the 2016-2017 academic year, approximately 1.6 percent of students enrolled in a post-secondary institution in the U.S. have completed a study abroad program (NAFSA 2019). Despite the steady gains in study abroad engagement, disparities in racial and ethnic participation rates persist. Nearly three-fourths of students who study abroad (70.8%) identify as white despite the fact that white students only represent 56.9% of the U.S. higher education student population. Conversely, African-American (or black) students represent just over 13% of the U.S. student population but only account for 6.1% of the study abroad student engagement. A similar pattern exists for Hispanic/Latinx students who represent 18% of the student population in 2016-2017 but only 10% reported going abroad. Historically underrepresented racial minority students do not have the same participation rates in study abroad as white majority students. This is a critical diversity, inclusion, and equity issue.
For nearly four years, I watched many of my undergraduate classmates take a semester abroad. They studied in places such as London, Brussels, Spain, Ghana, and Italy. I wanted to go but the thought of leaving school, my home, and the U.S. for 3 months was overwhelming – paralyzing, actually. I came to college on a combination of mostly scholarships and a little need-based aid. I came to college with an unrelenting drive to complete all of my studies in four years and then move directly into a graduate program. I came to college and immediately jumped into my psychology major, deciding to take the B.S. track, which meant additional science courses. Although, psychology was my primary major, my love of art history fueled me to pursue a double major. It was in my many beloved art classes staring at Renaissance images (Caravaggio’s work, to be specific), that the ache to go abroad and to see these masterpieces in person grew; trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art each semester were no longer enough.
Despite my desire to go abroad, there were three main deterrents:
- The cost. I was receiving a combination of scholarships, need-based aid, and had a federal-work-study placement. Study abroad for a semester was a costly endeavor and I could not afford it.
- The time taken away from completing science classes and other psychology courses I needed to graduate on time. There was also fear of leaving all the other works in progress that I juggled, such as my service work where I ran a local after-school program, or my undergraduate research work. These were two rich high impact practices (HIPS) that I knew were transferrable experiences for post-graduation success.
- Finally, while there was a developing culture for study abroad at my college and many of the friends that had gone abroad were students of color, this particularly experience was not something I ever considered. No one in my immediate family at the time had a passport (the only people who had traveled and lived abroad had done so as part of the military), I had never left the country, and the longest flight I had taken was coast-to-coast (Boston to Los Angeles).
It just felt that if all the HIPs were placed on a smorgasbord, study abroad would be the dish I would skip; my plate already full and my habit of taking what was familiar over something new.
The perceived barriers I wrestled with are common. In an assessment of barriers and expectations for studying abroad, Vernon, Moos, and Loncarich (2017) highlight previous research that points to financial loss as the primary barrier. This loss includes wages and the direct costs of the program. According to their review of Dessof (2006), there is a persistent pattern for students studying abroad to come from institutions that have greater financial means or have a student body where the vast majority are upper-income students. Additional barriers listed were the lack of family or friend support, fear of being alone, and institutional barriers such as credit transfers or course availability. Other research has cited the desire to graduate on time and the fear that study abroad would disrupt that schedule. Finally, Gordon (2014) found that perception of study abroad not being relevant for career development was also a deterrent. Although, not directly mentioned or concluded, Vernon, Moos, and Loncarich (2017) have generated evidence for the need for equitable contextually driven pathways to increase study abroad engagement.
All of these reasons for not going fell away in the spring of my junior year. An announcement was made that for the first time a summer study abroad course to Rome would be offered. This study abroad experience would be a fraction of the cost (however, I would still need to take out a small loan). The cost would include, in addition to tuition for our summer immersive and intensive language course, airfare, food, housing, and travel funds for when in Italy. The trip would be for six weeks over the summer, which meant that there would be no conflict with my tightly configured schedule in the regular academic year. I also had friends going; most of them had previously been abroad, and two of them were women of color.
In less than six months, I had a passport (to put this into perspective, I was 21 and still did not have a driver’s license). I had two round trip tickets, one to get me from Boston to Newark and then another to get me from Newark to Rome. I participated in a series of quick tutorials about the culture in Rome and expectations for behavior in the program. When I boarded that first plane in the early summer of 2001, I was convinced that I was overly prepared for a dream experience I never thought was achievable. However, the innocence and naiveté I left with did not return with me. James Baldwin once wrote, “You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you can never go back.” This is a critical framing context for the study abroad experience, particularly for historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS) that I will explore in my next series of blogs.
Dessoff, A. 2006. “Who’s not going abroad?” International Educator, 15(2), 20-27.
Gordon, P.J., T. Patterson, and J. Cherry. 2014. “Increasing international study abroad rates for business students.” Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 18(3), 77-86.
NAFSA. 2019. “Trends in U.S. study abroad.” NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Retrieved July 30, 2019 from https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/trends-us-study-abroad.
Vernon, Alex, Chris Moos, and Holly Loncarich. 2017. “Student expectancy and barriers to study abroad.” Academy of Educational Leadership Journal.
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, August 6). Study Abroad: A Critical Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Issue [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/study-abroad-a-critical-diversity-inclusion-and-equity-issue/