Surviving Study Abroad as a Minority

As someone who works in international education, I get to see the many benefits that international exchange experiences provide for program participants on a daily basis. That is why I am particularly struck by the low numbers of minorities who choose to travel abroad.

NAACP co-founder, W.E.B. Dubois, famously said “Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops men.” In the context of international education, that training also extends beyond borders.

The Institute of International Education reports that only 29.2% of participants of U.S. students who study abroad self-report as minorities—and only 6.1% identify as black Americans. The most commonly cited barriers to participation include financial challenges, lack of information, and biased impressions of what exchange participants should look like.

But as a black American with experience abroad and a career in international education, I strongly believe that you should go global, regardless of what you look like. Encountering new cultures, gaining cross-cultural skills, working in new environments, and forming lasting connections can all help us understand what it means to be part of our own country and culture.

Barriers At Home Preventing Minorities from Going Global

Financial challenges have historically deterred many minorities from undertaking experiences abroad, with many minority parents encouraging their children to graduate early as well as to pursue more immediate and lucrative career prospects.

Though graduating sooner can allow students to contribute financially to their household sooner, it can also hamper the career prospects and ambitions of these students before they have had a chance to consider other opportunities that can serve as an investment in their futures.

My flatmates and me in London. For a perspective on the lack of diversity in international study or internship abroad programs, imagine this picture with 12 more people who don’t look like me (only 6.1% of participants identify as African-American).

Lack of information about funding opportunities is also likely to discourage minority participants because, ironically, they are less likely to consider the possibility of scholarships and other financing options than their colleagues from more-privileged backgrounds.

Media portrayals of black Americans encountering hostility abroad can also be discouraging. This issue is compounded by poor representation of minority students studying abroad, which further contributes to a snowball effect of minority students avoiding such experiences.

Simply put, if you are not used to seeing minorities represented abroad, you are less likely to imagine yourself in a similar situation. For many, you cannot imagine what you have not seen.

Being a Minority Abroad

With skills from international work experiences becoming increasingly recognized and valued, but with minority representation still lagging behind, it’s more important than ever to encourage minorities to study and work abroad. As someone who has survived studying abroad as a minority himself, I know that the international experience is worth it, regardless of the challenges.

In 2016, I attained a Master of Science (MSc) degree in African Politics from the SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies). Though I was based in London, I actually spent much of the duration of my program conducting field research in Nigeria and traveling across Europe.

Going abroad as a black man was challenging in some ways but rewarding in others. In Nigeria, I experienced what it felt like not be a racial minority.

On campus in London, I was immediately struck by the lack of American minority students enrolled. How could an institution boasting an enrollment rate with 55% of students identifying as BME (black, minority, and ethnic) have but a few black American students?

The handful of us who did come from the U.S. came to know the answer. When discussing our experiences with each other, almost all of us reflected on the financial challenges that we faced in coming, and many of us found that we actually made the decision to attend at the last minute.

In other words, none of us were oblivious to the challenges of being a minority abroad, but we decided to do it anyway. And though being a black American abroad could be even more isolating than in the U.S., us few black American students found strength in each other and were reassured in the knowledge that, through our experiences, we were making it slightly easier for other minorities who would go abroad after us.

Of course, my reception among non-Americans varied considerably—from pleasant to annoying.

On campus, reactions always started with intrigue. Everyone is interested in knowing more about the U.S. and teasing out which rumors are actually true. Questions were varied but “what are the best places to visit?” and “does everyone have a gun?” were some of the more common.

Beyond that, there was significant interest in understanding the plight of minorities in America—as you might expect at a university boasting a large number of people of color.

Unfortunately, traveling as a minority abroad also included some other encounters which were decidedly unpleasant.

Two friends just hanging out abroad can make some people very angry.

Outside of the university campus, I definitely had my fair share of frustrating encounters. In London, an Indian friend and I encountered bigotry and the threat of violence at a fast food restaurant. I had similar experiences while backpacking in Croatia and in the Netherlands.

While unpleasant, these negative experiences increased my resilience and provided me with some critical insights into the over-arching experience of being a minority abroad.

Gaining a Perspective on Bigotry

Despite experiencing blatant bigotry overseas, the decision to study and travel abroad did not necessarily increase the probability of these sorts of encounters.

It’s important to remember that minorities in the U.S. are also fighting an uphill battle against discrimination, even if it’s sometimes less obvious.

Traveling to places that have been historically homogeneous means that many within the country have had little contact with minorities. While this does not excuse comments that can be jarring at times, it does lend perspective to the situation. There is some level of privilege associated with studying or training abroad, privilege that can cause resentment in those who don’t have it.

Check out one way that Cultural Vistas is seeking to do its part in promoting diversity in international education—the STEM Launch Study Tour.

Finally, all three incidents were exceptions to the way in which I was received in the given country. People are people. I can just as easily recount circumstances in each country where a person went out of their way to assist me and showed a side of their culture that wasn’t bigoted.

Representing America’s Greatest Strength at Home and Abroad

As a Cultural Vistas employee and outbound program administrator, I would like to see the number of minority participants in international exchange more closely align with the percentage of the country they represent. American minority students continue to be underrepresented, despite the advocacy efforts of organizations like Cultural Vistas—which partners with prominent HBCUs, is a member of the Diversity Abroad Network, and strives to raise awareness about the benefits of diversity in the global workplace.

I have often heard that organizations in our field struggle to communicate effectively with non-traditional groups. This could be a problem with staffing or a need to more readily adapt to different dynamics.

Whatever the reasons are for a lack of minority representation abroad, I think it’s clear that we all stand to benefit from overcoming these challenges.

Another Cultural Vistas initiative promoting diversity in international education is the Cultural Vistas Fellowship—a fully-funded eight-week internship opportunity for students historically underrepresented in international exchange.

Former U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who has a U.S. Department of State program bearing his name, has gone on record calling diversity “America’s greatest strength.” For Rangel, it is the role of “the best and most diverse talent to represent the American people in every corner of the globe.”

In order to realize this vision, we must continue to bridge the gaps in information for minorities as well as others, while being intentional in seeking the diversity from which our country gets its strength. In doing so, we offer the benefits of cultural exchange to every corner of the globe—including corners often forgotten here in America.