In an economically depressed job market, college students are scrambling to set themselves apart with international experience. But myths about the affordability and accessibility of study abroad programs are behind the low participation rates of under-represented students, experts say.
As global competency becomes a growing advantage for job seekers, study abroad agencies said the industry needs to ramp up efforts to bring minority students into the fold with new tactics and fresh approaches.
“I think for some time it’s been a self-fulfilled prophecy; these students aren’t going abroad, so we are not paying attention to them,” said Andrew Gordon, president of Diversity Abroad, a program dedicated to sending under-represented students overseas.
Although finances are a concern for these students, limited awareness about the benefits of studying in another country is a greater obstacle, said a focus group convened by the global nonprofit organization IES Abroad.
“Studying abroad has both academic ramifications and great potential for career opportunities especially with second language acquisition, problem-solving skills, and diverse work group skills,” said Carol Jambor-Smith of IES, which sends about 5,000 students each year to 30 international locations. “It can make students very attractive to employers, especially in a time of terrific competition when they need to separate themselves from other candidates.”
Each year, the U.S. sends 250,000 students overseas, but less than 20 percent are students of color, said Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer at the Institute for International Education (IIE).
“What we’ve learned is there are a lot of reasons why minority students aren’t going abroad and they are things that can be fixed,” Blumenthal said. “If they can get the information, support and counseling they need early on, then the possibilities of studying abroad increase.”
LaNitra Berger of the National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) said for years under-represented students were turned off by the traditional image of the study abroad student — White and economically advantaged.
“If you looked at advertising materials, you would see the main demographic represented,” Berger said. “Students of color didn’t see themselves in study abroad experience.”
Nationally, minority students comprise 18.2 percent of all American students abroad.
Fewer African-Americans and American Indians are heading overseas than Asian and Hispanics, according to the “2008 Open Doors” report from the Institute for International Education.
Some of the reasons, experts say, that students of color lose out on opportunities are finances, the fear of facing setbacks in their coursework, and ignorance about the process.
“There is no tradition of going overseas within these communities — particularly Black and Hispanic students,” Gordon said.
In the last decade, minority participation has leveled off, although modest increases in the last year reflect the growing emphasis from the industry to retool their educational material for minorities and their families, Blumenthal said.
IES now prints brochures in Spanish and English targeted to parents with financial advice and career planning. Jambor-Smith said they are also reaching out to cultural campus student groups to facilitate workshops for students of color.
After IES hired a diversity coordinator, who regularly conducts campus tours and presentations to minority-serving institutions (MSIs), minority participation for its 2009 program increased 9.1 percent compared with a year ago while overall study abroad enrollment increased.
Study abroad programs are increasingly expanding their reach by including internship opportunities for students seeking global work experience, a prospect appealing to students of color, Jambor-Smith said. In addition, students can tailor programs to their coursework to avoid missing out.
The IIE actively promotes the Gilman scholarship program, a federally funded competitive award that targets students receiving financial aid.
Some institutions are taking independent approaches to garner interest. Dr. Kathie Stromile-Golden, the director of international programs at Mississippi Valley State University, said the biggest challenge is to dispel the fears of her students.
“Many of our students are very disadvantaged,” Stromile-Golden said. “They haven’t been outside more than 200 miles away from home. Part of the struggle is convincing students and their parents they will be safe.”
To allay their anxiety, Stromile-Golden initiated radically new programs that pair her students with international students to combat cultural misperceptions and practice critical languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian. So far, the programs are working as foreign-language classes are filling up and new partnerships in Azerbaijan, China, Taiwan and Belarus have been established.
But even as study abroad and international education advocates look outwardly for innovative ideas, Diversity Abroad’s Gordon said it’s time the industry looked inward.
“International higher education is not diverse,” said Gordon, whose organization provides professional development assistance for educators. “We need to be more diverse to develop better, more innovative ideas. I don’t think we do enough to look inwardly as a field that may be precluding students from going abroad.”
More diversity among professionals could encourage students of diverse backgrounds to visualize their placement in a study abroad program, he said.