An unidentified student on a summer study-abroad program with the Council on International Educational Exchange in Legon, Ghana
Council on International Educational Exchange

Be it socioeconomics, lack of general opportunities and resources, or just plain fear of the unknown, when it comes to students of color studying abroad, it just doesn’t happen.

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A 2014 report by the Institute of International Education shows that 9 percent of U.S. undergraduates study abroad. Of that 9 percent, 75 percent are white, 7.6 are Hispanic, 7.3 are Asian and an abysmal 5.3 percent are black. All of this in the face of the growing opinion that study abroad is not only important but also vital in a world that is shrinking and becoming ever more accessible in the face of technology.

“We have realized that in order for us to be better actors, whether it’s political actors, whether it’s military actors, whether it’s economical actors, whether it’s intellectual actors, we need to understand the world better,” Maritheresa Frain, the executive vice president of Study Abroad at the Council on International Educational Exchange, tells The Root. “One of the best ways of understanding the world is living in another country … to have a structured educational experience that supports our intercultural learning is something that I would argue … is necessary as part as an undergraduate education.”

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It is with this in mind that the CIEE—a nonprofit that promotes international education and exchange—and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions have partnered together to help presidents from schools that serve minorities expand their study-abroad programs.

Participants in the workshop include Howard University President Wayne Frederick, Alabama State University President Gwendolyn Boyd, Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell and Metropolitan College of New York President Vinton Thompson, among others.

The effort kicks off with a daylong leadership workshop in Berlin Wednesday, when the two organizations will host the HBCU presidents. The workshop coincides with CIEE’s 2015 annual conference, The Reinvention of Study Abroad: Setting the Course for 2020, which will run Wednesday through next Saturday. 

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“I think [study abroad] helps them with their overall understanding with their place in the world and what they must do in order to influence the world,” Frederick says. “In order to … make your education worth the while you have got to go out and change the world around you. You can’t do that if you don’t understand the world completely and that means that to understand the world you have to understand as many cultures, as many things about it as possible.”

The college presidents agree that study abroad is imperative to student development and how they process the world.

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“[Under-resourced students] have such a deficit of experience and that’s the sort of experience that’s created a narrow perspective of their possibilities,” Sorrell adds. “The path forward has to include a path that continuously communicates the possibilities and hope for a different day, and the more you can expose people to, the more you can teach them, the greater the possibility of them finding hope, of them finding inspiration.”

It is thoughts like these that prompted CIEE into several of its initiatives. The organization is looking to award some $20 million in scholarships by 2020, all while facilitating free passports for 10,000 students to break down the socioeconomic, cultural and other barriers that stop students, regardless of race, wealth and disability, from having the experience that will last a lifetime and benefit them throughout their adulthood.

And it would seem that students who have benefited from study-abroad experience concur regarding the changes that have been brought to their lives through study abroad.

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“A lot of people of color, we really don’t get to leave the U.S. unless we’re first-generation from another country, and [travel] is extremely important for us to develop our views about world politics because then that gives us a better grasp on politics in the U.S. and just blackness,” says Sade Tuckett, a student at Spelman College who participated in a CIEE faculty-led program in Legon, Ghana, in the summer of 2014. 

Tuckett shares that her experience led her to delve more into international politics and take an international-studies course. This summer, Tuckett became a foreign-affairs intern for the Council on Foreign Relations.

“That trip was the turning point of my whole college life, and it snowballed into me finding out what I want to do in life. Just knowing who you are outside of here is that powerful,” she says.

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Still, no one is ignorant about the alienation that can come with studying abroad and being black. All agree, however, that fear cannot be a deciding factor when learning to navigate the world.

“It’s not only are you a stranger in this new country and you don’t speak the language, but also the people that are supposed to be from similar backgrounds. I’m the only person [in Prague] who goes to an HBCU, the only black person,” says Monique Dodd, a Howard University student who studied abroad twice with CIEE, in Brazil (spring 2014) and the Czech Republic (spring 2015). “It’s definitely an experience; it was like a test. So, I’m not going to say it was easy, but I don’t feel like you should let that stop you.”

Says Sorrell, “That’s not an excuse for you not to engage. That is just the reality in which we have to manage. There’s this great quote … ‘Life shrinks or expands relative to one’s courage.’”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.