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Elisabet Garcia

Study Abroad Needs to Fix its Diversity Gap

By Janet Ngo

The value of studying abroad as part of post-secondary education cannot be overstated, and racialized students have been missing out. But this is starting to change. 

Oreoluwa Abikoye, a University of British Columbia (UBC) undergrad, wants to study abroad, but isn’t sure it’ll happen.

On top of being a full-time student, the varsity athlete works full-time to pay tuition and will have to save up for an international exchange. She’ll also have to convince her parents that a stint abroad qualifies as serious study.

“Coming from an immigrant family, my parents came here to hustle. They didn’t come here for us to go on road trips and stuff,” says Abikoye. “[To my parents], travelling and schooling don’t go hand-in-hand.”

These are just some of the barriers preventing Abikoye from realizing her dream of studying abroad. And that’s not even making mention of the race-based microaggressions or threats to personal safety she anticipates having to face as a Black woman living abroad.

It’s been said that education is “the great equalizer,” in creating opportunities for all, including traditionally marginalized people. But if studying abroad is considered an important part of post-secondary education—being a hands-on route to gaining important intercultural skills that can lead to better employment opportunities—then racialized students are missing out.

Data from Canada and the US shows that Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BiPoC) aren’t participating in study abroad (including international student exchanges, practicums and research programs abroad) at the same rate as their White counterparts.

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) only 15 per cent of study abroad participants are racialized, when that figure should be at least double to reflect the Canadian undergrad population. Similarly, only 31 per cent of Americans studying abroad are racialized, when they comprise about half the undergrad population, according to Open Doors, a US-government-funded data hub.

Yet, the students least likely to participate in study abroad actually stand to gain the most.

The benefits of studying abroad

Research abounds on the measurable benefits of studying abroad—it’s been linked to skill acquisition, higher education and job outcomes, and lower unemployment rates.

In 2019, the European Commission conducted a large-scale study of 77,000 people who studied abroad through the Erasmus+ program. Among the findings, when it was time to start working, 72 per cent of study abroad alumni said their experience was helpful in landing their first job. Alumni of the program were also more likely to report being happy with their jobs and earnings, compared to students who didn’t go abroad. And even five years after graduation, students who went abroad had an unemployment rate 23% lower than those who didn’t.

The proof is in the pay, though. Over a third of employers (41 per cent) said they’d consider paying higher salaries to candidates who studied abroad, according to a 2018 Hostelworld report. In addition, research from IES Abroad—a group of 200 US universities and colleges running global education programs—found that study abroad alumni earned salaries about USD$7,000 higher than those who didn’t go abroad.

The students least likely to participate in study abroad actually stand to gain the most.

For racialized or otherwise underrepresented youth, there may be other unexpected advantages. That was the case for University of California Santa Cruz graduate, Elisabet Garcia, who describes herself as a first-generation, low-income, multicultural Latina, who grew up without a strong connection to her heritage or language. Three study abroad stints in three countries allowed her to reconnect with both her cultural roots and extended family.

“Studying abroad impacted my life, and every single aspect of my being. It helped me grow, develop and come back to myself,” says Garcia. It also helped launch her professional career—Garcia now works as a consultant for higher education and international education.

Students returning from a global education experience have shown gains in self-confidence, goal orientation, and social and cultural openness compared to their peers, according to the 2019 report on the Erasmus+ program.

But gaining self-awareness—an oft-cited benefit of studying abroad—takes on a whole new level for racialized youth who might have felt out of place to begin with. Wagaye Johannes, director of operations and organizational development for Diversity Abroad—an American organization leveraging global education programs to support diverse students—says that she’s often advised racialized students who didn’t feel American or felt they weren’t seen as American. For them, going abroad made them realize they had an American sensibility.

“It gives students a different perspective on who they are as a person,” says Johannes.

How racialized students are missing out

As a consultant for international education, Garcia believes that studying abroad can help level the playing field for minoritized students.

"Mainstream students can get internships and unique opportunities more easily and readily. For historically underserved students, that’s just not the case,” she says.

Research shows that racialized people in Canada and the US continue to face barriers to economic security, labour market outcomes, and employment, despite attaining a degree and gaining employment. In Canada, for example, a 2015 McKinsey survey found that racialized youth face more barriers to employment, and they experience double the unemployment rate compared to their white peers. These employment inequities exist despite the greater proportion of racialized youth having attained a university degree (40 per cent), compared to their peers (28 per cent).

Meanwhile, Black students in the US—more than any other group—graduate with the greatest student loan debts, yet earn 15 per cent less than their peers, and suffer the highest unemployment rates, according to a 2019 status report on race and ethnicity in higher education by the American Council on Education (ACE). For American Indian or Alaska Native adults, as well as Hispanic adults, median incomes are significantly lower than for their White peers with the same credential.

Racialized students aren’t the only ones who may face barriers to studying abroad. Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International at York University, says that accessibility for students with disabilities is a big barrier.

“North America makes significantly more accommodations than Europe or Asia,” she says. Canadian regulations are more comprehensive, with universities being required to provide learning supports and accommodations for physical disabilities, for example, which might not exist at universities in other parts of the world. And although LGBTQ+ students are slightly more likely to study abroad, Gengatharan says they cite safety and acceptance in the destination country as a barrier to studying abroad.

The barriers to studying abroad

There’s interest among Canadian students to participate in study abroad experiences, according to the CBIE. Nearly nine out of ten Canadian students surveyed say they’d like to study overseas—yet only a small percentage actually do so.

So, what’s holding them back?

Regardless of ethnicity, it’s usually perceived cost. According to the latest CBIE student survey, 80 per cent of Canadian students say they’d need financial assistance to participate. Although students usually pay the same tuition as they would at their home university, they have to budget for flights, accommodation, meals, visa fees and immunizations—and they may not be able to work part-time while abroad. It’s a large bill to swallow, especially for students who currently live at home. And while programs offering financial support are available, they’re often based on merit, rather than on meeting the needs of students who experience unique barriers.

Financial challenges aren’t the only thing holding back racialized students, though. Personal safety is a common concern, as is a lack of family support. Gengatharan says that parents of first-generation students may be less familiar with the value of global learning, and are more likely to emphasize the importance of getting Canadian work experience.

It’s also a marketing issue.

“Is this for me?” is a question Johannes frequently encounters in her work. She says that the message of going abroad for travel experience may not resonate or gain familial support among all students. Instead, families—especially those of first-generation post-secondary students—may be more likely to offer support when students deliver messages like, “If I do science research in the UK, it’s going to leverage me to get a better job later on.”

“Education abroad, historically, wasn’t designed to be inclusive.”

Abikoye says she first remembers getting the idea to do a study abroad experience after her friend, also a Nigerian-Canadian student at UBC, spoke positively about her own experience studying abroad. Reflecting on UBC’s messaging, however, she says it seemed that studying abroad was meant for students who are financially stable, who are experienced travellers, and who could easily travel on their own. It seemed the students she witnessed going abroad were those who could say, “I could, so I did.”

And, international educators acknowledge there have been issues with program design.

“Education abroad, historically, wasn’t designed to be inclusive,” says Johannes, referring in part to the 19th-century practice of wealthy young women attending pricey French and Swiss finishing schools.

As a result, education abroad providers are looking at how to design more inclusive story abroad experiences—including hiring more diverse staff at international experience offices. Results from a 2020 Diversity Abroad survey of diversity among international educators, however, found that most study abroad offices are staffed by White (68 per cent) women (78 per cent) who hold master’s degrees (62 per cent).

“Racialized people are underrepresented in study abroad programs because they are under-supported when it comes to access to information and how it’s possible for them to take [a year abroad] and make it their own,” says Garcia.

The future of study abroad diversity

Increasingly, Canadian and American universities are beginning to respond to the unique barriers that racialized students face. They’ve started designing more inclusive recruitment strategies, programming, and resources that acknowledge the possibility of student experiences differing from those historically represented.

For example, some educational institutions have created targeted campaigns to reach racialized students and encourage their participation. SUNY Oswego’s “I, Too, Am Study Abroad" campaign and Knox College’s ”The Road Less Travelled: A Study Abroad Campaign for Ethnically Underrepresented Students” aim to alter the perception of who studies abroad. Peers sharing their experiences about race, sexuality and socio-economic background helps prepare students for their own potential experience abroad and provides a resource while abroad.

York International is even designing study abroad programs targeted to specific student populations. In 2021, it launched a virtual exchange program for Indigenous students and Gengatharan says it hopes to launch a program for racialized students, as well as offer a more diverse option of host countries, beyond the traditional Western European destinations.

The level of support students receive from their home college or university has a huge effect on the perceived quality of their study abroad experience. According to the 2019 report on the Erasmus+ program “the better students assess the support and services at their home institution, the larger the gain they report, from their mobility experience.”

As it stands, the nature and definition of global learning appear to be changing—a change that’s only been accelerated by the pandemic.

Virtual global experiences—which are more flexible and lower cost—are one key area of growth, as are faculty-led exchanges of eight weeks or less (often held during the summer months). Combination programs may also emerge in the future, where remote experiences bridge the gap to longer stints abroad. For example, students could participate in a virtual global program for six months, before going abroad to meet in person for a short time.

There’s also better funding for students. According to Universities Canada, the Government of Canada provided funding for the Global Skills Opportunity Program as part of its International Education Strategy. The “program will provide international study and work experiences for thousands of post-secondary students, with a focus on low-income students, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students.” The program prioritizes study abroad experiences to destination “countries outside the traditional destination countries,” and in particular, encourages study abroad experiences in Asia and Latin America.

Initiatives like these are an encouraging sign. As universities offer more inclusive programming, racialized students may start studying abroad at more representative rates—a change that has the potential to help the students who can benefit from studying abroad the most.

Abikoye, for one, hasn’t jumped on a plane just yet, but she knows one thing is true: “If I go, it will be a life-changing experience.”

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Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

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