Should colleges and universities be concerned with low minority participation rates in study abroad? If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, then this article is for you.
Minorities and Study Abroad
Access and educational equity are major issues in college and university life. Minorities, especially, are often unable to afford extracurricular programs and activities that greatly enhance the quality of post-secondary education. One such quality program is study abroad, and current trends highlight the discrepancies in participation rates between different ethnicities, minorities, and genders.
Minority and low-income access should be a priority of all international education professionals and universities espousing a focus on international matters. Leaving out minorities and low-income students is marginalizing an entire subsector of the student population. No university can allow better privileges to certain groups of students over another, and this is all too commonplace in today’s college campus cultures. Higher education institutions should not aim to be elitist because of financial gain or to favor richer students, but should aim to promote and motivate effort and hard work. Universities must campaign and motivate minorities to take part in valuable study abroad programs so that they have an equal opportunity at gaining the benefits that such programs offer.
The Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) points out that listing a study abroad experience on a resume greatly enhances job opportunities and success (IES, n.p., 2015). They further argue that “having taken this initiative not only says something about your academic achievements, but also about your personal ambition and determination (IES, n.p., 2015). Clearly, students who are denied access or opportunities to study abroad are being subjected to a lesser-quality education than those who do have or receive ample resources and opportunities for such experiences.
While many students experience cultures on campus distinct from their own background, these experiences do not parallel those international and intercultural experiences that today’s employers are seeking. With the advent of globalization, employers are increasingly seeking out culturally aware and experienced employees who can work effectively in an increasingly global workplace (IES, n.p., 2015; SDSU, n.p., 2015). Therefore, the more cultures a student is exposed to, the better he or she will be able to handle complex international situations. Simply being an “outsider” (Horowitz, 1987) on campus is not as effective as the intercultural knowledge and experience, gained abroad, that the modern day employer is searching for. This is demonstrated in the fact that an increasing number of universities are advocating study abroad specifically as a mode of career enhancement. This, however, does not seem to be an attempt to benefit employers as much as it is to benefit students, who are the job seekers and who are generally seeking their education in order to gain future, meaningful employment in whatever field they may aspire to enter. After all, universities are presumed to be, at their core, student-serving entities, not random employers to whom they most likely have no connection.
San Diego State University’s (SDSU) homepage entices students to explore study abroad options in order to gain and possess “skills needed in the global economy” (SDSU, n.p.). According to SDSU, these “skills” include economic and geographical knowledge, cross-cultural communication skills, analytical skills, flexibility, understanding of and familiarity with local customs, ability to adapt to new circumstances and proficiency in a foreign language. It is evident that many large institutions, such as SDSU, agree that students who have international experiences and knowledge of foreign cultures graduate and enter the labor market with the upper hand and are much more likely to get that ideal position thanks to these experiences. The main takeaway point here is that study abroad is an extremely valuable experience that helps students both personally and professionally, an experience that no student should be denied.
The Open Doors findings on diversity and minority participation ring a few alarm bells. During the 2011/12 academic year, only 24% of study abroad participants were minorities (Open Doors, 2013, p. 32). It is important to reiterate that this 24% includes ALL minorities, and, therefore, if one were to expound upon the data, say, to find the proportion of ONLY African American students, the numbers would be even more appalling. Furthermore, a gender gap was also widely apparent, with women comprising more than 63% of all study abroad students in the same year (Open Doors, 2013, p. 31).
The last few decades have witnessed an unprecedented spread of technology, communication, and exchange of cultures and peoples. These processes, all products of, and contributors to, “globalization,” are the fundamental driving force leading to the rapid increase in rates of study abroad participation and attempts to internationalize higher education. Proponents of international education are constantly seeking ways to improve the rates of study abroad participation and international student exchange in order to increase cultural awareness and competency amongst their students.
Dwyer (2004) shows that study abroad participants experience great personal growth as a result of having studied in a foreign country. In her study, participants overwhelmingly report that their experience not only had a lasting impact on worldview (95%), but also caused them to change or refine political and social views (84%), and continues to influence political and social awareness (88%), participation in community organizations (66%), and even choices made in family life (73%) (Dwyer, 2004, Table 5). They also report increased self-confidence, maturity and toleration of ambiguity. Similar data shows that study abroad participation has many positive impacts on students’ career plans and aspirations. Many participants reported that they acquired new skill sets that influenced their career path (76%), that the experience “ignited” an interest in a career direction (62%), and over half reported enhanced foreign language abilities that they utilize in the workplace (65%) (Dwyer, 2004, table 4).
While surely the longer a student is abroad, or the more programs he or she participates in, has correlational advantages, recent data has shown that the length of study abroad programs does not have a large impact on the most important benefits (Dwyer, 2004). Students who have participated in summer programs, semester programs, and full-year programs all report high levels of personal and intercultural development and increased academic commitment (Dwyer, 2004). The biggest disparity is in career development being that 59% of those who have participated in a Summer study program compared with 70% who have done a full year program report that their experience has ignited an interest in a career direction and have acquired skills that have influenced their career path (Dwyer, 2004). Even this difference, however, is minimal as those in the summer programs still clearly benefit in this topic.
Any professional, scholar or university faculty member that is knowledgeable of the aforementioned benefits of study abroad should strive to motivate more students to take advantage of available opportunities. However, not only should we be focused on simply getting more students, if not every student, to seek out such opportunities in the long run, but we need to work toward an eventual expansion of minority participation and an immediate increase of diversity within the groups of students we are currently sending abroad.
The Lincoln Commission (2005) affirms that study abroad greatly improves the education of all Americans by encouraging students to engage more fully with the world. The Commission points out that, “[a]s both Senator Fulbright and Senator Simon understood, it helps ‘transcend traditional national and cultural boundaries’ and breaks down the ‘psychological, political, and spiritual’ isolation of peoples” (p.31). Study abroad is a widely accepted means of increasing the cultural awareness, enhancing the personal development, and broadening the perspectives of students (Picard, Bernardino & Ehigiator, 2009).
Study abroad is a widely accepted means of increasing the cultural awareness, enhancing the personal development, and broadening the perspectives of students (Picard, Bernardino & Ehigiator, 2009). Thus, it is understandable why many professors and other professionals in institutions of higher education are adamantly trying to find new ways of promoting study abroad participation to their students.
The problem, then, is how to enable more students, especially minorities and those from lower economic backgrounds, to be able to take advantage of study abroad opportun-ities at their college or university. With rising tuition costs already keeping out a large number from these sectors of society, how can it be expected of them to fork out thousands of additional dollars in order to participate in a rewarding study abroad experience?
My concern about the issue arises from my career goals. I aim to be a study abroad advisor, and eventual director, and have already experienced first-hand the problems discouraging student participation. As Dwyer’s (2004) data points out, and my personal experience confirms, participation in study abroad can ignite career direction, and my experience studying in Argentina being the catalyst of my own aspirations is living proof. I can also attest to the fact that the group of students I went to Argentina with was 100% white.
The fact that there are organizations, such as Open Doors and the Lincoln Commission (sponsored by the U.S. federal government), researching and reporting data on study abroad trends, serves to highlight the fact that there are many professionals in the field of education, and even government, who are concerned about this and other issues surrounding study abroad.
Open Doors (2013) points out that targeted outreach, funding and recruitment would substantially increase minority participation in study abroad. I agree that access to study abroad can be expanded, especially to minorities, via increased institutional funding. Incorporating a “study abroad fee” in tuition costs, not all unlike the commonly present recreational activities fee or similar charges, could easily cover study abroad program fees, thus enabling greater access to minorities and other underprivileged students. While many are surely against any additional increase to students’ tuition bills (and rightfully so) as a terrible idea, I would argue that cuts could be made elsewhere, such as in online class or student activity fees, to make up for the new fee.
It is important to consider that even a fee of only $5.00 at a school with 50,000 students would be more than enough to help cover a large portion of program costs for most, if not all, of the year’s participating students. Some may argue that it is unfair to charge all students a fee for something that they may not directly benefit from, but the same argument can be made for the health services and recreational fees that students currently pay in most all major institutions, whether they ever visit an on-campus health professional or frequent the campus rec center at all. Therefore, to many, including myself, this argument has no clout whatsoever. Furthermore, the entire point here, once again, is that EVERY student should have the opportunity to participate in study abroad programs and if one chooses NOT to undertake said experience, this would be entirely of their own free will and choice.
The Lincoln Commission (2005) points out that “the availability of a fellowship or scholarship can stimulate the student to find additional resources needed to study abroad” and, thus, “institutions and students [must] work together to achieve the benefits of cost containment” (p. 18). Therefore, I would argue that universities should be more focused on funding their study abroad offices and aiming to immediately increase the number of students who are [able to] participate in quality study abroad programs.
By Paul Downey
Dwyer, M. M. (2004). More is better: The impact of study abroad program duration. In Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, v10 pp. 151-163 Fall 2004.
Horowitz, Helen L. (1987). Campus life: Undergraduate cultures from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
IES. (2015). Study abroad: A lifetime of benefits. Launch your Career. Retrieved from http://www.iesabroad.org/study-abroad/news/study-abroad-lifetime-benefits
Open Doors 2013. Report on international Educational exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors
Picard, E., Bernardino, F., & Ehigiator, K. (2009). Global citizenship for all: Low minority student participation in study abroad- seeking strategies for success. In Lewin, R. (Ed.), The handbook of practice and research in study abroad: Higher education and the quest for global citizenship, pp. 321-343.
SDSU. (2015). The study abroad experience: Highlighting your international experience. Career Enhancement. Retrieved from http://go.sdsu.edu/student_affairs/career/internationalexperiencedomestic.aspx
The Lincoln Commission. (2005). Global competence and national needs. Retrieved from http://www.aifs.com/pdf/lincoln_final_report.pdf