Minorities Shy From International Studies, Careers
Scholars say lack of data makes it harder to understand why
By Eleanor Lee Yates
The demand today for employees who speak foreign languages and are internationally savvy is greater than ever. But few minorities enroll in college international programs, and few choose careers that involve global work. Two scholars speaking at a national education conference in Durham, N.C., say the problem is compounded by a dearth of research on the subject.
A comprehensive national study should be done to determine the number of students and the characteristics of those who enroll in international disciplines, say Mark Chichester, director of the Institute for International Public Policy at the United Negro College Fund’s Special Programs Corp. and Dr. Olusoji Akomolafe, associate professor of political science and director of International Programs at LeMoyne-Owen College in Tennessee.
The two scholars spoke on the necessity of research at the Conference on Global Challenges and U.S. Higher Education: National Needs and Policy Implications held at Duke University in January.
There is no question, they say, that demand for international skills in government, business and education far exceeds the supply of employees. More than 80 federal agencies and offices rely on employees with foreign-
language proficiency. But whatever the reason, few minorities are entering careers in defense, intelligence, foreign policy, commerce and other fields, which require international skills.
Figures from the United Negro College Fund report that in 1999, African Americans comprised only 3.3 percent of students who studied abroad, Asian Americans comprised 4.4 percent, and Latinos made up 5.2 percent. No college serving minority communities ranked in the top 50 schools offering international programs.
The lack of minorities in international programs and global arenas has significant effects, say the two scholars. In their paper, “Minorities and Underrepresented Groups in International Affairs and the Foreign Policy Establishment,” Chichester and Akomolafe state that the underrepresentation of minorities in the nation’s foreign policy circles deprives the country of a range of perspectives, input and human resources to draw upon in meeting today’s international challenges.
“The implication of minority underrepresentation can only be detrimental to minority interests and, as important, to the collective American interest in having representative foreign policy that reflects the will of the American people,” write Chichester and Akomolafe.
Chichester and Akomolafe also are interested in the role of higher education in integrating minorities into the foreign policy establishment. But they say money itself is not an issue. Scholarships and grants abound for minorities pursuing international careers, but students are leaving money on the table.
“Throwing money at this problem doesn’t seem to be helping,” Chichester says.
Their presentation elicited many comments during the question-and-answer session, and many weighed in on the issue. One graduate student, who is African American and has a scholarship for his international studies, said many minorities want to solve problems at home before they head for foreign shores.
“They may feel, why go to Africa and solve problems there when my cousin here just got shot in the back?” he said.
Another member of the audience said many Black students are the first in their families to go to college, and their families are concerned about them venturing too far from their support system.
Introducing language and international careers in college may be too late and should be introduced in high school, said another member of the audience.
William Brustein of the University of Pittsburgh, who led the synthesis of the afternoon’s programs, suggested the importance of emphasizing the employability of international careers.
“How can we make these programs more relevant to these students? How can we answer, ‘What’s in it for me?'” he said. He also brought up the possibility of tailoring courses to minorities.
One participant questioned whether having minorities in foreign policy circles added any different perspective, citing Dr. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser. But another member of the audience countered that having a diversity of viewpoints from different races can only be an asset to policy-making.
“The bottom line is that, since no study of this nature has ever been conducted, we are really still very much in the dark as to why minorities fare so poorly when it comes to enrolling in international education classes,” stated Chichester and Akomolafe’s paper.
Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Duke University, welcomed participants from all over the nation at the opening dinner. Dr. Eugene W. Hickok, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education gave the keynote address. Other speakers included Dr. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education and G. Richard Wagoner Jr., president and CEO of General Motors Corp.
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