Study Abroad…It Still Matters

I still remember the phone call. I was working for a non profit and part of my task was to help first generation students transition into higher education and even help with retaining. This mom called me slightly frantic. One of her college-aged daughters was interested in studying abroad and the mother was freaking out. The daughter came from a large African American family with little travel experience. Most travel had been limited to the east coast, with jaunts to New York and Atlanta. But no one had gone anywhere that required a plane, passport and language skills. Mom was terrified.

According to the Institute of International Education, Black American college students only make up approximately 6% of the study abroad population. This mom had real fears that parents, especially those of color, have about sending their students to live abroad. Will my child be safe? Will they make smart decisions? How will those local communities receive them? Will they be a target because they are visibly not part of the local population? In my conversations with this worried mom, I shared a few thoughts to help her view the positive aspects of study abroad. Here are a few:

Debunk the Stereotypes

The media does a great job of exporting entertainment but not accuracy. Global impressions of a people group are usually a result of movies, music or the news, and these rarely offer nuanced views. Just like most Australians are as far from the Crocodile Hunter stereotype as possible, few African Americans are real-life replicas of what you’ve seen in the latest hip hop video. The media can be monolithic in its portrayals of blackness. Study abroad experiences can allow students to demonstrate more nuanced views of their racial and cultural identity.

Confront Your Stereotypical Views

Just like people subscribe to stereotypes about your culture, you might have some about others. Not every American is rich. Not every African lives in a hut in a remote village. Not every South American is in a drug cartel. You get the drift. You may not even know you have these cultural biases until you’re confronted by them. Study abroad can allow you to address these issues if you open yourself to the process.

Hone Your People Skills

Any time you become accustomed to working with others who might be drastically different from you, you develop your people skills. It’s relatively easy to work with others who are just like you, but sometimes you need to sharpen your skills by working with people who may think differently than you do. The ability to work with diverse populations can be very useful in various work environments. Many companies are multinational these days, so experience with diversity could give you an advantage in the hiring process. I’ve always maintained that the students who can communicate and positively interact with people stand a better chance of successfully navigating their careers.

Use Those Foreign Language Skills

Pretty much every student I know is required to take a foreign language at some point in their educational career. Studying abroad can allow you to test what you think you’ve learned and expand upon those skills. In the instance I mentioned earlier, this student had studied Spanish since middle school. She was an A student in the classroom, and although she could read and write the language well, her spoken skills were weak. Going to Spain was clearly going to require her to use the language every day and improve her command of it. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to practice in Barcelona while checking out the local cuisine than in your everyday classroom. Why spend years learning a language you never actually use?

Become Independent

Spending time in a foreign country will do wonders for your ability to be independent. The opportunity to travel and navigate a new culture will be worth it. At some point, you stop becoming a tourist and become a part of the daily fabric of the community. Studying abroad allows for students to become adventurous.

In the end, the mom relented and the student went abroad. She added Africa to the list of her firsts as she took a chance to visit Morocco. She grew personally and professionally. She didn’t tell her mom about the Morocco trip until after the fact, though.

The student and her mother survived… until the student started talking about joining the Peace Corps and her younger sister started planning her own study abroad trip.

Mom, as you can imagine, was already hyperventilating.

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