A standard list at the start of a New Year often include eating healthy, achieving a career goal, and making a trip abroad. Yet for the last item on this list: going overseas, African American students make up only 6.1 percent of all U.S. college students who complete an educational experience in another country, according to a 2016-2017 study by the Association of International Educators with the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors. The main deterrent for African American students is that the rising cost of attending college leaves little funds left over for enhanced educational experiences.
Study abroad advocates and educators hope that a new Congress in 2019 will recognize the importance of having a diverse workforce that has been exposed to international study. They expect to continue the efforts of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress who introduced H.R. 4379, the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, in November 2017. The legislation, supported by Senators Richard Durbin, D-Ill, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. in the Senate, and Representatives Cheri Bustos, D-Ill and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. would support challenge grants that encourage college and universities to enhance opportunities for study abroad.
“If we try to find more funding out there, I think our numbers will increase,” said Karen Lee, the associate director for the Center for Intercultural and International Programs at Xavier University of Louisiana.
“A lot of students want to go, but when you look at your funds and have to pay for your airfare, that holds a lot of students back from going,” Lee said.
Study abroad programs can range from $4,000 for two to four week programs to $18,000 for semester-long programs. Historically black universities like Xavier are working to create more affordable educational experiences abroad, like its Spring Break in Cuba program for faculty, staff, students and their relatives, which costs $1,400 as a program fee that covers accommodations and transportation, among other expenses. Airfare costs are approximately an additional $500. In November 2018, the Mayor’s Office of International Relations recognized Xavier’s center for international programs on International Education Appreciation Day for its service in the community for promoting international study experiences for institutions and residents.
Providing cost effective opportunities for African American students is one strategy to change the numbers, but international education advisers also work to help Black students navigate cultural differences abroad.
“Sometimes traveling as a black student, we run into racism or just see things from a different perspective,” said Nia Laing, a senior, sociology major, at Xavier. “For example, going to West Africa can have such a deeper meaning for us because we are the descendants of slaves from that region,” Laing said.
Organizations like the Diversity Abroad Network now exist to provide both financial and social resources for students of color to successfully navigate study abroad experiences. Such networks share stories, testimonials and travel preparation to help students anticipate all aspects of global travel. This can range from anticipating foreigners who intrusively touch black students’ hair to understanding religious and gender norms in other countries.
More importantly they underscore to students the benefits. Students who study abroad are more likely to finish their degree transfer from a community college to a four-year university. They are also more likely to have a higher grade point average than those who don’t study abroad.
Laing, who now serves as a study abroad ambassador for Xavier said it is very difficult to persuade students to join the program because they aren’t sure if the travel is worth the cost.
“People think it’s expensive, even though there are so many scholarships out there just sitting,” Laing said, adding that she often encounters with students a “general disinterest of going to a new place, and worrying about something bad happening.”
Sometimes companies will give students scholarships just because they attend an HBCU, she explained.
“My travel would not be possible without several scholarships,” Laing said.