Can study abroad advance antiracism in international HE?

Study abroad researchers and practitioners should be among the leading voices in conversations about institutional racism in higher education, particularly in the area of student development. Study abroad has long championed itself as a source for intercultural competency, staffed and researched by experts in this area, promising to make students more tolerant, understanding and aware by exposing them to the world and its people.

These outcomes should theoretically lead to students being committed to antiracism, justice and respect for all regardless of colour, creed or nationality. However, the very experiences of United States students of colour who study abroad, and the fact that discussion on the need for antiracism in the field is only now emerging, suggest that, in fact, the domain itself has a way to go when it comes to race.

Race and equity in study abroad

From the academic discourses that have dominated the field for decades to how students of colour access and experience programmes, study abroad has a race issue it needs to continue to contend with at a deeper level.

The underrepresentation of students of colour in study abroad is an ever-present topic of discussion. Yet, despite public commitments to increasing racial diversity in study abroad participation, particularly at predominantly white institutions, scholars and practitioners engaged in these efforts have traditionally done so in ways that overemphasise what students of colour lack in terms of navigating access to study abroad rather than holding accountable the systems that create and maintain these barriers.

It is no surprise then that efforts to diversify US study abroad programmes have been slow moving.

In the US context, study abroad across institution-led programmes and private providers is very much an extension of the higher education system as a whole, in which the unwillingness to acknowledge and address long-standing and deep-seated issues of race have amounted to the wilful neglect of people of colour within institutions.

Indeed, the experiences of students of colour who do study abroad challenge the very claim that students become more understanding, empathetic and less inclined to racial stereotyping through study abroad.

When Black students study abroad, they report that a significant amount of racism that they experience when away is perpetuated by their white peers, who represent 70% of all US study abroad participants. How do we reconcile this with the notion that students return from their experiences more willing and comfortable to engage with difference?

The language of diversity

In the book, On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life, Sara Ahmed describes the varied discourse around the term ‘diversity’, including the multitude of ways in which diversity is operationalised – from its presence in equity and inclusion statements and marketing materials to how it is used to signal an organisation’s values and priorities.

This discourse extends beyond institution-wide declarations of diversity, equity and inclusion – permeating academic and co-curricular programmes. Study abroad is indeed an area where posturing has been employed as a substitute for the real work of advancing racial, economic and social justice. Beyond the symbolic language of ‘diversity’, ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’ embedded in study abroad discourse (and marketing), little within the enterprise has explicitly sought to combat racism, xenophobia and other social issues.

Alternatively, antiracism takes aim at how the systems and structures in place act to uphold or oppose racism in the institution. It is a change-oriented philosophy that first demands continuous, ongoing, critical reflexivity and then an active commitment to choices that promote justice and equity. In order to shift into authentic antiracism work, study abroad must begin by interrogating the discourse around its policies and practices.

Addressing racial inequity

The language of institutional diversity is, by design, destined to fail to deliver what it promises. It is time to move beyond this disarming rhetoric toward an unequivocally antiracist, social justice ethic. In practice, the field can address how the status quo works to uphold inequity by:

• Continuing to diversify the field of study abroad and its leadership.

• Rejecting deficit narratives that blame students of colour for their underrepresentation in study abroad (for instance, due to their lack of financial, social or cultural capital) and assessing how institutional policies, such as grade point average minimums, can be exclusionary.

• Devoting resources to help students of colour study abroad. Underrepresented students of colour need more outreach, culturally responsive advising and financial support.

• Breaking the study abroad bubble that places outgoing students with US peers in US-styled classrooms and extracurricular activities, a model that does little to challenge students’ perspectives and views or truly raise their awareness of differences among peoples and cultures.

Most importantly, addressing racial inequity means embedding an antiracist curriculum into every study abroad programme for all students.

The curriculum should, among other things, help students reflect on their privileges and social position in the world; engage students with social justice issues in the host country; prepare students with tools to engage in the host country environment, academic culture and with the people; and have students reflect on how they might use their experiences in the service of others, particularly as leaders of antiracism work on their home campuses.

The need for more defined learning outcomes in study abroad is more crucial than ever. Any effort to transform students will need to be explicit, intentional and coordinated. While not comprehensive, the steps we have listed above to address entrenched racism and exclusion in the realm of study abroad are meant to begin a dialogue.

An opportunity for transformation

According to the Association of International Educators, approximately 341,000 students went abroad in the 2018-19 academic year, of which 30% were students of colour. Study abroad is uniquely positioned to lead antiracist education with students of all disciplinary backgrounds.

It can give students a ‘third space’ in which, removed from the context of US society, they have the room, both physically and mentally, to observe, experience and appreciate new and different ways of being and doing. Herein lies the real opportunity for transformation.

Motun Bolumole is a 2020 graduate of Boston College’s masters degree in international higher education. E-mail: bolumole@bc.edu. Nicole Barone is a doctoral candidate of higher education at Boston College, United States. E-mail: baronena@bc.edu. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.