Go Abroad, and Save the Excuses
I had no idea the day I left Los Angeles in 1979, to begin a six-month study abroad program in Bogota, Colombia, that the experience would be one of the most profound of my undergraduate career and subsequent life. Not only was it deeply rewarding on a personal level, but it gave me a different lens through which to interpret the world and through which to truly appreciate the value of education.
I attended a college where it was customary for students and faculty members to work and study abroad, so the choice for me at the time was commonplace. I didn’t realize until later that this was not the case for most college students or professors, especially those who are African American.
Studying and teaching abroad are no longer as unusual as they were when I was an undergraduate, still, fewer than 10 percent of all American college students participate. African Americans continue to be grossly underrepresented among those who are taking advantage of overseas opportunities at the faculty, administrative and student levels. Certainly, there are many reasons for this underrepresentation, but I honestly believe that some of it stems from our own lack of awareness about how accessible and necessary this type of scholarly experience is becoming.
Among the most common excuses I’ve heard from people about why they haven’t studied or taught abroad are:
• “I don’t know where to look for study/teach abroad opportunities;”
• “I can’t afford the expenses associated with studying or teaching abroad;”
• “I only speak English;” and
• “My home institution would never let me go.”
All I can say in response to these lame excuses is, “PLEASE!” The opportunities and need for African American educators who have overseas experience is so great that I can’t believe people continue to recite these tired old excuses. Moreover, it used to be that most of the opportunities to go abroad were in European and Asian countries. But in recent decades, an increasing number have opened up in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, places that many Black scholars find more appealing.
If you’re wondering where and how to get started, go to the study abroad office on your own campus. If your campus doesn’t have one, seek one at a neighboring college or university. While most of the information you’ll find in these offices targets students, there are often resources for faculty as well. You might also find out which of your colleagues have already studied or taught abroad. Ask where they went, how they went, what they thought of the program, how much money they made, and how you might obtain more information.
Beyond teaching, which can be done at the postsecondary or K-12 levels, remember that there are opportunities for scholars in research, library development, faculty training and conference development, to name just a few. In addition to investigating the resources available on your own campus, you can always search for opportunities on the Internet. Some useful Web sites include:
Some of the best opportunities for scholars to go abroad can come in the form of fellowships, such as those available through the Fulbright program. But many more opportunities can be found in the form of teaching or research jobs that are not related to fellowships. So, don’t limit yourself to looking for opportunities only in selective programs.
In most instances, scholars who land opportunities abroad are paid in the currency of the country where they are teaching. While it might not be a salary comparable to what you might earn in the United States, in most cases it will be a compensation package that should enable you to live comfortably overseas. In any case, it is a good idea to become familiar with the overseas work permit laws and general compensation norms of the country where you will be working before you make a commitment.
On the subject of language proficiency, English-only speakers who envision pursuing overseas academic dreams may have a more difficult time landing an opportunity to work abroad, but it is not impossible. Of course, it helps to get some language training before you go. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for people who speak English only, especially in countries where English is the primary or one of the main languages. These include opportunities in the Caribbean and parts of Africa. In any case, once you get overseas, try to pick up another language so that you can put those skills to use whenever you return to the United States.
As soon as you make a decision to pursue overseas opportunities, it is a good idea to discuss your plans with your home institution. Some schools and departments are more open to people taking leaves of absence to pursue overseas opportunities than others. Unless you already have tenure, recognize that a decision to leave may preclude you from returning to the same job or even the same institution. But don’t let that discourage you. You’ll probably be more marketable after you return than you were when you left anyway. Gently remind your home institution of this as well.
I have never met a person who has studied or taught abroad and regretted the experience. If anything, most people wish they had stayed longer. As communication, economic and educational bridges continue to bring the world’s people closer together, more people of color must join the ranks of those educators who are acquiring overseas experiences. Our institutions and our students deserve and should expect nothing less. So what are you waiting for? Do your research, and start packing!
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