By Kimberly Cressy

According to Open Doors 2004, there has been a 129% increase of US students studying abroad over the past decade. In 1993/94 approximately 71,150 students studied abroad, as compared to 174,629 in 2002/03 (IIE). The report also provided numbers on a historically underrepresented group: students of color. While the percentage of students of color studying abroad during these years increased by 137%, in 2003 they made up only 17% of the total number of students studying abroad.

So what do these numbers mean? Statistics such as these have led to initiatives to increase participation of underrepresented populations in study abroad. Historically, middle to upper class European American females represent the ‘typical’ US student studying abroad; however, these figures are changing. With the increase of internationalization programs across U.S. campuses nationwide, colleges and universities are recognizing the merit of education abroad programs, and are working to make these programs more accessible to a broader range of students. Diversity initiatives, specifically in regard to race, sexual orientation, class, physical ability, and gender, have reached study abroad offices, and are emphasizing the need to make these programs more accessible to underrepresented groups.

This article intends to move beyond the initial steps of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ we need to increase diversity in education abroad. As evidenced in the numerous sessions and open meetings held at the national NAFSA conference this past June, education abroad professionals readily acknowledge the need for outreach to underrepresented groups of students. Yet how much attention are we paying to the changing needs of our students as diversity among participants in education abroad programs increases? What plans and measures have been established toward achieving the long-term success of these diversity initiatives?

Much of intercultural communication focuses on encompassing cultural self-awareness, other-culture awareness, and various skills in intercultural perception. As Bennett states, “An individual who has internalized two or more cultural frames of reference frequently faces an internal culture shock. This intrapersonal response is not due so much to external interaction with a single different culture, but rather to the recognition of conflicts between two cultural voices competing for attention within oneself” (1993).

Below is a breakdown of some of the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead as we strive to make education abroad more accessible to underrepresented groups. To further contextualize these opportunities and challenges, I have created two categories: Intra-group and Inter-group. ‘Intra-group’ refers to the interactions solely among US Americans studying abroad, while ‘Inter-group’ refers to interactions among and between US Americans studying abroad and members of the host society. These categories provide additional lenses through which we can better understand some of the current and upcoming opportunities and challenges. Of significant importance is the need to recognize that these opportunities and challenges refer to the changes that will take place not just among underrepresented groups, but also among the current ‘traditional’ study abroad participants.

Opportunities & Challenges at the Intra-group level

As those of us in the field of education abroad are well aware, removing oneself temporarily from his/her typical environment provides a means by which an individual inevitably begins asking new and/or deeper questions of oneself and one’s society. The range of this introspection may vary, due to previous intercultural experience, the duration and model of the program, and stages of identity development. A theory widely used in student affairs is Arthur Chickering’s theory of psychosocial development. Chickering saw the establishment of identity as “the core developmental issue with which students grapple during the college years” (Chickering, 1993 in Evans, Forney and Guido-DiBrito, 1998). Grasping a firmer sense of one’s identity leads to more advanced capabilities for addressing issues that may arise later in the developmental process.

Interactions between and among diverse groups of US Americans studying abroad have a unique potential unlike any other interaction occurring within the US. They share the experience of being an American living outside of the US. Whereas, within the borders of the US, nationality as a means of identification is often replaced by more specific identifications, or micro-cultures, such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability. Sharing this heightened awareness of being an American outside the US while simultaneously acknowledging the self-reflection process provides a potentially ideal learning platform. Through interactions between and among diverse groups of US Americans, students can help one another progress in their various stages of identity development.

This leads to the challenges. As mentioned above, students come to their education abroad programs at various stages in their identity development. Students coming to a program as members of a dominant group (ie White Americans, heterosexuals, upper class, able-bodied, males) will typically be less advanced in their identity development than their peers who identify as a non-dominant group member. However, the physical removal from one’s home environment will inevitably force even those students at the initial stages of identity development to re-examine many of their beliefs.

In Education for the Intercultural Experience Paige states, “It is a common phenomenon for learners to find themselves becoming temporarily immobilized in a state of extreme cultural relativism, hesitant or unable to make judgments…It’s psychologically challenging” (1993). If not facilitated effectively, learning could possibly occur only for those at the early stages of their development, while underrepresented students would be left with their needs largely unmet. Furthermore, while discomfort is a natural feeling in the process of becoming more interculturally aware, lack of proper facilitation can lead to dangerous levels of psychological distress. As the number of underrepresented students participating in education abroad programs increases, so too will the range of needs among both the underrepresented and the more traditional students. How then, can we ensure maximum and safe learning for all?

Opportunities and Challenges at the Inter-group level

Culturally diverse teams have been widely acknowledged for the potential creativity and problem-solving advantages they can produce (Cox, 1993.) Once again, education abroad programs with culturally diverse US Americans provide potentially ideal platforms for learning how to work more effectively in and with diverse groups. As described earlier, students removed from their typical environment will ask new and/or deeper questions about themselves and their societies. Providing these students with opportunities to compare and contrast these questions with those of the host society can be further enhanced when multiple viewpoints are shared. An obvious objective of the potential learning and identity development from these experiences should be the knowledge that these students will bring back to the US and the transfer and application of that knowledge into their personal and professional lives.

There are also, of course, challenges with which we must be acutely aware. One of our many goals as international educators is to help our students become more self-aware of their potential impact in the world. One way we achieve this is through exposure to other cultures, to help them experience and respect different cultural norms. Herein lies a delicate challenge. As we increase the number of underrepresented students on education abroad programs, diverse student groups will ideally educate one another in regard to identity development and perceptions surrounding race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability. While these perceptions may vary, the framework through which most of those perceptions has been formed remains a framework constructed within US cultural norms. Other countries’ histories, ethnic and racial demographics, and economic standing will inevitably construct a different framework through which members of host societies perceive race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability. How do students navigate through the challenge of respecting the intra-group norms while simultaneously respecting host society cultural norms?

Conclusions and Applications

It is exciting to consider the realm of opportunities that education abroad can provide as its student groups become more representative of the US population. To achieve this however, we as administrators, faculty and academic directors must be prepared to challenge current norms, raise difficult questions, and push ourselves and others to find answers. We must ask ourselves questions such as, “What types of resources and training are we providing our in-country staff, as well as our staff and faculty on US campuses?” It is not easy because there is no one-size-fits-all panacea but, if a fundamental goal of study abroad/international education continues to be one that strives for personal transformation, and transformational learning in general, then we must re-examine the current resources, tools and frameworks which are presently being applied.

If applicable theories and frameworks can be developed so that we can apply them to the evolving needs of a changing group of US students, then we can begin to more accurately describe, explain, predict, generate, influence, and assess their needs and challenges. As Beverly Tatum (in The Chronicle Review, 2004) so eloquently expressed it in her article “Building a Road to a Diverse Society,” “The vision is a blueprint.”

Kimberly Cressy is an independent researcher presently based in Chicago, IL. She is a graduate of the School for International Training, with a master’s in international education and exchange management. Her organizational work has included assignments with SIT Study Abroad, the Experiment in International Living and Culture Contact, based in Munich, Germany. As part of her graduate training, she conducted research on the role of race among US Americans studying abroad. Her current research projects include racial diversity among student groups, and cross-cultural, diversity, and leadership programs for inner-city youth. Kimberly has led youth groups to Ecuador and Chile and has studied and worked in Austria, Germany, Bolivia, and Mexico. She speaks Spanish and is conversational in German.