Nearly four years before he would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, civil rights vanguard Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India, the home of Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote, “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” Contemporary civil rights are one of the countless solutions that were borne out the exchange of ideas and people beyond national borders. We live in a globalized society where countries and economies are more interconnected than ever before—it’s critical that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity or economic background, have the opportunity to participate. When U.S. students study abroad, they not only learn about the world, but they also serve as ambassadors for the United States and all the unique diversity of ideas and solutions.
Just about 300,000 U.S. students study abroad each year. Yet, only about 5% of those going abroad are African American. This is a third of the 15% of African Americans who are enrolled in U.S. higher education. Finances, family support, and fear of the unknown are some of the reasons why African Americans and many underrepresented students don’t think of studying abroad.
Almost 60 years after Dr. King’s visit to India, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me that he wished he had traveled abroad a lot earlier in life, but fear stopped him. His first trip to France as an adult opened his eyes to new perspectives on the world and his own identity. His son now has the opportunity to live overseas.
The support of family, friends, and mentors play a significant role in encouraging underrepresented students to study abroad. Many of IIE’s Generation Study Abroad partners, including Diversity Abroad, Black Bread, Fund for Education Abroad, as well as many colleges and universities recognize this and have developed targeted campaigns to reach out to encourage more students of color and other underrepresented groups to study abroad. Knox College’s ”The Road Less Travelled: A Study Abroad Campaign for Ethnically Underrepresented Students” and SUNY Oswego’s “ I, Too, Am Study Abroad Campaign” are just two examples of targeted campaigns whose goal is to change the perception of who goes abroad. Having peers share their stories about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background openly and honesty is important in preparing students for a successful study abroad experience and also knowing that there are resources available to them while studying abroad.
Recognizing the role of peers is one reason why IIE, in partnership with Go Overseas and other partners, launched the #GoStudyAbroad campaign contest. The contest calls on study abroad alumni and those who support education abroad experiences to nominate students to study abroad. We hope through the campaign that more young African-Americans and others, who might otherwise not have considered going abroad, will be inspired to take action and study abroad after being nominated by those who have walked and traveled in their shoes.
So, as we celebrate Black History Month, let’s honor the rich tradition of African Americans studying abroad by mobilizing the education community and beyond to identify ways to encourage more African-American students to study abroad so that they, too, can take advantage of the benefits of an international experience.