Racial Disparity in Study Abroad Programs 

 July 15, 2015

By  Laura Kosloff

I read a couple of interesting articles today on minorities in study abroad programs; or, rather, the small numbers of people of color and people with disabilities who participate. One article in particular stuck with me.

Here’s one statistic about racial disparity that you most likely haven’t heard too much about: Only about 5% of Americans who study abroad are black.

Brandon Tensley, What’s keeping black students from studying abroad?
Quartz.com July 13, 2015.

This 5% figure comes from the Institute for International Education, which conducts extensive studies of U.S. students studying abroad in its annual Open Doors report. (The percentage of Hispanic students studying abroad isn’t much better at 8%, even though each group accounts for about 15% of the general college population.)

Tensley sees several reasons we should be concerned about this.

* Students who travel and study abroad are more like to pursue careers involving international and foreign policy issues and conversely, if you don’t have such opportunities you are much less likely to pursue them. Few black (or Hispanic) Americans are in high-level leadership positions within the State Department diplomatic corps, for example, or in other federal agencies addressing cross-border issues.

* Study abroad provides opportunities for African-American communities and young adults to move away from heavy debt burdens. As Tensley notes, black students are more likely to look to student loans to foot their education bill. College is often much less expensive in other countries (consider the example of Germany).

* Much has been made about the “resume potential” of study abroad, gap year, and other extended travel experiences. Not being able to take part in cross-cultural immersion and travel experience could mean missed opportunities in the job market. Tensley argues that these missed opportunities go beyond the “what ifs” for an individual; they “rob society of social capital. If traveling abroad breeds cosmopolitanism even in the broadest sense, then everyone’s better off if black people contribute to this shared aim, too.”

Tensley notes that his group of Fulbright recipients had two African-Americans out of a group of 100; he also says he feels strongly that black Americans can “play a critical role in telling America’s story.” Moreover, travel and international experience is for everyone: “traveling has proven to me that there’s simply too much to be gained on the road for me to stay home.” Tensley talks about the “black travel movement” and resources for the African-American traveler, as well as efforts to overcome the very real issues of financial accessibility.

In the end, there is also what he calls “the pipeline problem” or what one could also call the old Catch-22. Young African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans need role models who can and will encourage them to pursue high school, gap year, and college experiences abroad, yet there are very few such role models. I suspect that’s in part what Tensley is trying to do.

  • Hi Laura: Are you familiar with the with the work of Mobility International USA down in Eugene? They assist travelers, exchange students, etc. with disabilities travel & study internationally. In August I will start hosting Joseph Sesay from Sierra Leone at Boise High. He is almost totally blind, but has been successfully mainstreamed at home and will be here too. He will spend a week in Eugene before coming to Boise, and will be given/lent a laptop and other state of the art equipment to help him with Braille and text readers, Their website is http://www.miusa.org.

    Tony Boatman
    P.S. he is coming over under the State Dept Kennedy-Lugar YES Program for students from majority Moslem Countries, under the auspices of AFS.

    • I’ve heard of them. Thanks for mentioning them here for any readers who might be following this; they are a good resource. The Dept. of State Kennedy-Lugar YES program has worked towards enabling students like Joseph to come to the U.S. for an exchange, and it’s such a good step. As you probably know, though, it’s a small step — the YES program brings over about 900 students to the U.S. each year, as compared to the 25,000 or so total that CSIET (the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel for folks who don’t know) reports in its annual statistics. I’m glad the program exists, and we need more people like Joseph to be able to experience and learn about other cultures and bring that home afterwards. We also need it in reverse, getting U.S. students of color and with disabilities to be able to have that experience as well!

      Welcome to Joseph when he arrives, I know he is in good hands!


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