The young Americans who spend time abroad during college look little like the students at universities across the United States. But there is a growing effort from schools, nonprofits, businesses, and even the federal government to make sure the students who go abroad are an accurate reflection of the nation’s college campuses.
A couple of years ago, the nonprofit Institute of International Education launched a campaign called Generation Study Abroad to double the number of U.S. students who spend time in foreign countries each year to 600,000 over five years. Right now, only around 10 percent of American college students study abroad. While people of color make up about 40 percent of each graduating class, they comprise just a quarter of those who go abroad. The numbers are especially low for black and Latino students. So hundreds of schools across the country that have pledged millions of dollars and promised Generation Study Abroad, which is also dispersing grants and scholarships, that they will send more students abroad are focusing on reaching out specifically to students of color.
The State University of New York at Oswego has turned to its most abundant resource, namely students, to increase its numbers. After university staffers heard about the I, Too, Am Harvard movement to highlight black student voices at a diversity conference in 2014, they decided to try something similar for study abroad at Oswego. Instead of holding generic study-abroad panels, the school asked students to talk specifically about things like racial identity overseas and what it’s like to be an LGBT person abroad. One young woman wanted to talk about her experience as an African American in particular, so the school helped her set up an event with the black student union that turned out to be one of its most popular panels. The result, said Caitlin Pollard, an education-abroad specialist at the school, has been a “considerable growth” in the number of racial minorities and low-income students who travel to foreign countries. Returning students field questions from prospective students about where they can get their hair done, whether people will understand their religious beliefs, and if they can find certain foods. One returnee told classmates thinking about applying that studying in London was the first time she’d been viewed as an American first, not black first, which had a profound impact on her sense of self.