The Internet may have afforded its users the ability to embark on visceral international adventures without having to book a plane ticket, but it has also reignited a curiosity for traveling outside national borders. As a result, studying abroad in college is slowly embedding itself in the list of typical college experiences, like joining a fraternity or sorority.
Despite an increasingly globalized world, the number of Black university students who take advantage of international education in their universities compared to the number of their white, Latino and Asian-American counterparts who take advantage of the opportunity is troublingly disparate. According to a study conducted by the Association of International Educators for the 2010-2011 school year, while African-American students comprised 14.5 percent of students enrolled in post-secondary education, they made up 4.8 percent of those who went abroad. These numbers hardly raise an eyebrow until they are matched up against Asian and Pacific Islander students, who make up 6.1 percent of the country’s college student body and 7.9 percent of the study abroad class, and white students, at 60.5 and 77.8 percent, respectively.
According to Starlett Craig, Black students’ misconceptions about overseas experiences play a major role in these lower numbers. Craig, who directs Clemson University’s Office of Academic Excellence at the Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education, wrote “Top 10 Reasons for African-American Students to Go Abroad” for Transitions Abroad magazine in 1998. She listed negative race relations as the number one myth Black students believe will sully their time spent in a foreign country, expecting that racism in European countries, for example, will be worse than what they experience in the U.S. She argues that this, coupled with the financial burden of traveling overseas to study, discourages Black college students from exploring that option.
In the 15 years since Craig’s publication, the government has intervened to ensure that financial hardship does not prevent minority and working-class university students from pursuing a semester or year abroad. In 2001, the U.S. Department of State created the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program. The grant is aimed specifically at students of color who demonstrate high financial need and aspire to study in countries other than Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Students with disabilities, as well as those who attend community and historically Black colleges and universities, are strongly encouraged to apply. Since the program’s inception, approximately 5,600 Black students have received scholarships of up to $5,000 to help them go abroad.
Those who opposed the statistics and daunting expectations to complete their studies in other countries shared their stories with the AmNews, showing a range of experiences for Black Americans who travel. From Viña del Mar, Chile to Prague, Czech Republic, the students discussed the different ways Blackness is perceived and treated abroad.
Last summer, DaLisa Barnes flew across the pond to study at the famed Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Barnes, a 25-year-old Chicago native with a penchant for politics, noted that she purposely entered the country with very few expectations of the way she would be treated by Europeans.
“You assume that Black people are looked at the same in every country, which is not true,” said Barnes, who recently graduated from Northern Illinois University with a political science degree and is now pursuing a master’s degree in global development and social justice at St. John’s University.
Barnes said that in Europe, nationality trumped skin color in the way she was received by locals.
“I never felt discriminated against because of my race. I felt that people were more standoff-ish because I was American. It was refreshing,” she said.
Barnes added that the Black community in Oxfordshire, England, was extremely small, and she found that when she acknowledged the few other Black people she saw on the street with a slight head nod, the gesture was not reciprocated the way it is in the states.
“It was almost like they didn’t notice I was Black,” she said. “At first, I was offended, but then I saw the beauty in it. It shows you another way of race relations outside the U.S.”
Otisa Eads contended that the Black community in her host country, Chile, was similarly very small, which resulted in heightened curiosity among the locals she encountered.
“People, especially children, stare at you, but nobody was rude because I’m Black,” said Eads, who attends Murray State University in Kentucky. “I’ve had people touch my hair because it’s different. They’re just excited to get to know you.”
Eads, a Spanish major entering her senior year, said that it has been her lifelong goal to live in a foreign country. She chose a semester in Viña del Mar, Chile, because, unlike Spain, it was the less popular study abroad program at her school. She also wanted to challenge herself to learn Chilean Spanish, known for its faster pace of speech and trickier dialect.
Because Eads’ father is a retired Marine, she was able to easily secure the funding needed to study abroad, but she feels that information regarding financial aid for foreign exchange should be made more available to students.
“Nobody knows that there’s money out there to study abroad,” Eads said. “Nobody explained to me that there were scholarships specifically for Black students.”
Financial planning is crucial to solidifying study abroad plans; the earlier a student decides to go, the better. For Tina Wiley, this meant working for a year in order to spend a summer taking classes in Istanbul, Turkey.
Originally from Oakland, Calif., Wiley recently graduated with degrees in psychology, art history and visual culture from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She recalls being inspired by an image of the Hagia Sophia, a prominent church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul, during an art history course she took in her freshman year. She immediately decided that she had to see it for herself. She credits her academic adviser with giving her the right information to manifest her international dreams.
“I was an RA [resident assistant] the following year to afford the trip,” she said. Soon after, she was awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship.
Wiley’s experiences in Turkey ignited in her a desire to travel more. After returning from Istanbul, she forewent receiving her diploma last May so that she could spend a semester in Barbados. Like Eads, Wiley also noticed a lack of Black students going abroad at her school. She said that one of the responsibilities of being a Gilman scholar includes advocating studying abroad to other students upon your return.
“I made it a personal mission of mine,” she said. “I hosted events at school to talk about study abroad, the financial process and the Gilman scholarship.”
When Matt Knight, a senior at New York University’s Stern School of Business, considered the reasons his Black friends chose not to study abroad, he talked about their different perceptions of international education, race relations and financial means. Knight said that when he spent a semester in Prague, he was one of two Black students to do so, and the only male.
“A bunch of my Black friends think of college as a place to work or play sports. For other students, classes aren’t really an issue; they go to find themselves. Black students are just focused on other things,” he said.
The Long Island native added that perhaps Black Americans anticipate feeling especially isolated if they spent time abroad because there is a lesser likelihood of having family living in foreign countries.
Despite these uncertainties, Barnes, Eads, Wiley and Knight universally agreed that their decision to study abroad is not one they will soon regret.
Barnes hopes that more Black students will choose to study abroad during their college years. She took out a total of $20,000 in private loans to fund her trip to the United Kingdom, and later Italy for graduate school, but she would easily do it over again.
“When you study abroad, that is a self-investment nobody can take away,” she said. “You rise to the occasion when you study abroad.”
Wiley shared Barnes’ opinion of the invaluable experience of studying abroad.
“I tell other Black students, ‘If you’re going to pay student loans until you’re a grandparent, you might as well say that you got something more out of it than an Xbox or an apartment.’”