Study abroad has big benefits, but is out of reach for many

In August 2023, I took 24 students to England for a short-term study course titled “Race, Immigration and Higher Education in London, Oxford and Bath”. It was a new study abroad course for Arizona State University in the United States and I believe it is the first to cover race and immigration. Eleven of the students were people of colour and many were on scholarships that covered the costs.

As a first-generation college student who greatly benefited from studying abroad in places such as Austria, Spain and Ethiopia, I was thrilled to be able to teach my first study abroad class.

My course, which enrolled a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students, is designed to develop a better understanding of higher education today by visiting multiple higher education institutions and engaging with stakeholders in the UK across the cities of London, Oxford and Bath.

This experience reminded me of the value of providing both undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to study abroad.

Teaching this class was rewarding primarily because it provided me with an opportunity to connect with students in a humanising way.

During the course, my graduate teaching assistant, Neelakshi Tewari, and I had a chance to speak to students more extensively, usually during group transit: on our way to a class dinner, while on the train to the city of Oxford or walking during one of our site visits.

In these moments, I heard students’ reflections on the course, their previous experiences with international travel (or lack thereof), and their own family histories of migration. These moments were valuable because, due to the often packed nature of students’ course schedules when we are on campus, these opportunities to have extended conversations with individuals are not always possible.

Wider perspectives

Participating in this study abroad course also helped us question the taken-for-granted assumptions we have about race from the US perspective. Even when we were being critical and race-conscious, many of our course discussions focused on the US student experience or contemporary debates in US society.

Listening to faculty and academic researchers (especially the work of Dr Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud) who live and work in the UK and are familiar with UK higher education and society helped us re-frame much of our thinking and be more reflective.

During the course, for instance, students began to see how the historical, cultural and political context of the UK also shapes how people experience racialisation there.

They learnt how police brutality affects people of colour in the UK, they gained insight into the legal battles that black immigrants of the Windrush generation had to navigate, and how people of colour who are also children of immigrants (such as Rishi Sunak or Suella Braverman) can advance anti-immigrant policies, despite the fact that they benefited from pro-immigration policies themselves.

Many students also noted how they assumed that the UK would be far more progressive than the US when it came to social inequality, but the trip helped them reconsider their positions.

Overall, the course helped them see how certain issues are global and pervasive (ie, anti-Blackness exists across national boundaries, the effects colonialism and imperialism extended to the entire world and so forth), but also how the specific history of the UK shapes how these events are understood, taught and talked about publicly.

Finally, the course provided students with a chance to access social capital.

International mobility and travel are forms of social and cultural currency.Through this study abroad course, students had the opportunity to visit the British Museum and the University of Oxford and learn about the slave economy that helped build the beautiful city of Bath.

I am not suggesting that visiting and knowing these places make my students superior to people who have not. Instead, I argue that students, especially those from historically under-represented backgrounds, had a chance to become aware of the cultural signifiers and artefacts that people with more privilege are well aware of.

Challenges and benefits

To be sure, there are many challenges to engagement with study abroad opportunities, both for faculty and students. Higher education scholars have documented how study abroad pathways are constrained and shaped by racism, cost-prohibitive prices, legal or immigration roadblocks and the COVID pandemic.

For students with health issues, many are concerned about participating in study abroad because they often do not receive the same health benefits with international insurance plans as they do at home and may not have access to local resources and support while travelling and living abroad.

Moreover, for many marginalised groups of students, there still remains inequitable access, resources and opportunities for study abroad. These structural issues should be taken seriously by both universities and governments committed to global exchange.

Still, for those who are able to do it and provided they have financial, administrative and legal resources to do so, there are many opportunities for humanising interactions, critical awareness and social capital to be gained.

Meseret F Hailu is assistant professor of higher and post-secondary education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College division of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, United States.