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Study Abroad Participation Up, Except Among Minority Students

Despite targeted outreach and the availability of financial aid, minority-student study abroad participation declined for several groups, according to the new Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education. The report, however, showed an 8.5 percent overall increase in study abroad participation.

“It is very disheartening to see how slowly the minorities’ share of study abroad is increasing,” said IIE Chief Operating Officer Peggy Blumenthal.

The data, from school year 2007-08, shows African-American student participation increased from 3.8 to 4 percent, but participation by Asian-Americans and Latinos decreased by a tenth of a percent each, from 6.7 to 6.6 percent and from 6 to 5.9 percent, respectively. This reflects a 10-year period of slow, if not stagnant growth for all minorities, during which study abroad participants doubled from about 130,000 to more than 260,000. 

“A lot of steps are starting to be taken” to increase minority participation, Blumenthal said, “but it still doesn’t seem to be moving the needle enough.”

The most prevalent obstacles include lack of information and motivation, experts say. Minority students, particularly those at smaller institutions, may not have faculty that have studied abroad and therefore don’t receive encouragement to do so. Small schools may not have extensive study abroad offices to offer information and without peers who have gone abroad students lack the motivation to learn more about studying abroad.

 “One program that shows it is certainly possibly to dramatically increase minority study abroad is the Gilman program,” Blumenthal said.

Established in 2001 and funded by the federal government, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program provides scholarships to U.S. undergraduates receiving federal financial aid through Pell Grants to study abroad, particularly at nontraditional study abroad destinations. Students can receive up to $5,000 to study abroad, with an additional $3,000 possible if they are studying critical languages. The program is administered by IIE and 1,700 students receive scholarships each year.

“We’re looking for those students who aren’t traditionally studying abroad, so at least the financial barrier is overcome,” said Paetra Hauck, assistant director of the Gilman International Scholarship Program.

More than 50 percent of Gilman scholarship recipients are minorities.

“Those numbers … they really come up to what national higher education enrollment is,” said David Comp, senior adviser for International Initiatives in the College at The University of Chicago. “I think that that’s really the ultimate goal, to have at least the demographics of study abroad match higher education enrollment.” 

To continue working toward this goal, IIE has reached out to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSI), as well as community colleges, with a workshop to educate faculty and administrators about strategies to increase the number of under-represented study abroad students. Today, 21 percent of Gilman scholarship recipients come from HBCUs or other MSIs.

Study abroad boosters “look to recruit faculty from foreign language departments, or other areas where there might be people interested in promoting study abroad,” Hauck said. “For these under-represented institutions, there may not be a study abroad office or not a very strong or well-staffed one, so we try to bring in other parts of the university.”

Gilman students travel to a wider variety of countries, which may help lessen the cost of study abroad. While nationally, the majority of students still choose to study abroad in Europe, said Blumenthal, more than 70 percent of Gilman students study outside of Europe. While 4.5 percent of all study abroad students go to Africa, twice as many Gilman students do so. The percentage of Gilman students traveling to Asia is triple the overall rate of 11.1. 

Though there is no solid data on where minority students choose to study, anecdotally, Comp said some students are heritage seeking, choosing countries where they can learn more about their culture or where they are more comfortable with the language, which could lead to some increased variety in study locations. 

Once students return from study abroad, Gilman scholarship recipients do a follow-up project to help promote study abroad.

“Peer-to-peer outreach is so important in reaching these groups,” Hauck said. “We think that that’s really been helpful in our success in reaching a diverse audience.”

But while Gilman is effective, it can’t work alone, said Andrew Gordon, president of Diversity Abroad, which travels to high schools, community colleges and universities to promote international education and other global exchange opportunities. The Gilman could use more partnerships to help with outreach, from his organizations and others like it, Gordon said. 

“It will take some time” to create real change, he said. “In the last few years there has been a concerted effort, trying to implement various strategies to bring in nontraditional students … there was no concerted effort before.”

“As more organizations implement the best practices and strategies for reaching the under-represented,” he said, “we will see more movement in those numbers.”

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