BY MOLLIE SIMON
Passports are the doors to the different cultures, customs, foreign foods, exotic experiences, and unique perspectives found on the expansive, orbiting rock we all call home.
Among those passport applicants and fliers are the college students headed out to explore the world for the first time through study abroad. But, as diverse as their experiences may be, this group itself is often highly homogenous.
“Nationally, we have seen that two-thirds of students studying abroad are women and the vast majority are white, so that doesn’t reflect diversity on campuses,” associate provost for international education Kavita Pandit said.
Pandit said the Office of International Education is working hard to reach out to male students and to host sessions on diversity in study abroad.
Reasons for participation gap
During the 2013 to 2014 school year, 76 percent of study abroad participants were white according to the Gilman Scholarship Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State. But, while the numbers are easy to find, the reasons behind them are more elusive.
Pandit said there is a common assumption that the racial gap is caused by financial barriers, but she said that is only true in some cases according to studies and not only limited to minority students.
“What students have said instead is that in their everyday lives on campus they are negotiating culture all the time, so they do not see a need to study abroad,” Pandit said.
Some students also voice concerns about how they will be perceived abroad.
While Pandit said these are very legitimate questions which her office tries to address, she feels going abroad is an important enough experience that all students should avail themselves of it.
Aerion Ward, a women’s studies and psychology major from New York, studied abroad in Morocco for over three months before graduating in the fall.
“I didn’t have any concerns about going abroad, but living it was a different experience. People can’t understand the distinction between African and African American abroad,” Ward said.
When telling people where she was from, Ward was sometimes asked, “Where are you really from?”
Ward said she would definitely go back to Morocco if she had a job or work there, but she suggests that students from minority backgrounds do their research before picking a study abroad destination.
“Look into the country you are thinking of traveling in, especially if it is non-western as they may not be used to seeing minority students. Ask people about the place, go online, and talk to the alumni of the program you want to do,” she said.
Among the 42 students in Ward’s study abroad cohort, which travelled through the company International Studies Abroad, there were three black students, one Asian student, and one Latino student
Ultimately though, being thrust into such a different environment helped Ward grow.
“My racial identity had never been challenged before, but now it has been and it has better equipped me to handle race issues in the future,” she said.
Ward believes minority students should not hold back from studying abroad just because of a fear of standing out.
“If you don’t go to a country, you don’t exist to people and they only know what they see on TV, so there is a disconnect. The more people that go abroad, whether they be Asian, Middle Eastern, or any other background, it is really important so that they see other variations of Americans and not just whites,” Ward said.
Role of study abroad
Even if its participants may lack diversity, the purpose of study abroad is still to diversify individuals’ views.
“As diversified as UGA itself is, a lot of our students come from North Atlanta suburbs and people run into people from high school and sometimes come with similar views,” Pandit said. “But, when you get out of that environment, you begin to find your own culture or self. I learned more about India when I was in the U.S. than when I grew up there.”
Pandit said college is a time to build a richer identity, to find one’s place in an international context, and to realize your own assumptions and biases about the U.S.
Yana Cornish, the director of UGA’s Education Abroad program, agrees.
“After college when you are establishing a career or family, it can be hard to focus on self discovery as you are trying to create roots,” she said.
Whether it is traveling to Canada, France or South Africa, Cornish said study abroad is about getting out of your comfort zone.
Senior sociology major Jakarah Everett from New York studied abroad in Costa Rica last spring and had the chance to live with a family there through a homestay program.
“For me, it was good to see how other people live. It made me appreciative of what they had built themselves,” Everett said.
For Everett, being a minority abroad was not a concern. She said the only sorts of moments she felt different were when people were fascinated with her braids or played with her hair.
Standing out is not always about race though, sometimes it is simply about being American.
Man Lam, an accounting and Japanese major from Lawrenceville, has been studying in Japan since October and will be there until August.
She said she does not stand out visually in Japan since she is Asian, but that she does stand out as an American.
“If you see how people react to a situation, you can tell they are French or American or Japanese. Students have told me my reactions are very bold or outspoken,” she said.
Closing the gap
While money may not be the sole reason people of diverse backgrounds study abroad less, there are avenues to help students financially. Pandit said students should never automatically assume they cannot afford going abroad.
Both Everett and Ward received scholarships through UGA in addition to the Gilman, which is designed for students receiving Pell Grants to go abroad.
“Those scholarships are very crucial. If you are at UGA, you should work with the Office of International Education. They will help you find the most amazing scholarship out there,” Ward said.
Finding programs is only half the battle though. Ward said she spent over two months really taking the time to craft great essays for her applications.
Lam also suggests considering working while abroad and has done data analysis for a graduate student in addition to teaching English at a middle school.
“Before I left, money was a huge problem, but after I got past that stuff this has been the most life changing experience I have ever had,” Lam said.
For those students who cannot make study abroad work or are not interested in traveling, regardless of gender or race, Pandit said there are still opportunities to broaden horizons on campus.
“There are many ways that you can build that international perspective without necessarily leaving the campus and one important part of that is engaging with the international community in Athens,” she said. “We have students from all of the world, and we have different cultural student groups and events like the International Coffee Hour to get people out of their comfort zones.”
Image via Office of International Education