I am writing this post fresh off a trip visiting my Peace Corps host family. I grew very close to them during my two-year service in rural northern Peru. This experience as a volunteer changed not only my outlook on the world, but also fundamentally impacted my sense of self, my cultural and national identity, and my goals for the future. Oftentimes while on site I would reflect and think to myself, “How did I come to make such a radical choice to join Peace Corps?” As a Colombian-born immigrant to the US, I did not grow up with prior knowledge of the organization nor did I have examples or role models to guide me toward this path. What would make a type-A, overachiever, tunnel-vision-to-success young woman take two years “off” to live in a foreign country, in hardship and isolation? Time and again I have concluded that my semester in Paris as a study abroad student led me to choose Peace Corps, thereby exposing me to even more of the world and growing my passion to continue to travel, see, understand, experience, and live life as a more whole-hearted citizen of the world.
I am a staunch supporter of friends, family, and students I interact with to take time to travel. See the world. Broaden your horizons. Experiencing places and cultures different from our own can be just as important as any other career-related skills you will learn in a classroom. And while I think everyone should study and live a significant amount of time abroad (Spring Break cruises do not count!), too often we find minorities and students from low-to-mid income families being left out. The Institute of International Education’s (2012) Open Doors data shows that 74% of U.S. students who studied abroad in 2013-2014 were white. Although the numbers have been improving over the last five years, this figure is still not representative of today’s college student population, which means that many diverse students are missing out on the opportunity to gain the intercultural and worldly skills they need to become competitive in an increasingly global society.
Luckily, there are organizations like Diversity Abroad, a group dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to international education and exchange opportunities by providing information, guides, tips, and financial advice to students. For those students who did not have an example from family or friends who spent any time abroad, access to information can make the difference in whether a young person can see themselves living in another country or not. Universities are also taking matters into their own hands. In one such case, Kent State University has created a pilot program that brings together two seemingly unrelated offices on campus, the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Office of Global Education, to create and fund a month-long study abroad opportunity for students from various races and socioeconomic situations. Clark University, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts is also offering a similar 10-day option. University President David Angel was quoted in a US News article saying the following:
When you come to a college, sometimes you come with a very fixed sense of who you are as a person, your life path and career. It’s a picture of you that sits on the mantelpiece at home. We are interested developmentally in helping students break frame, explore the possibilities.
Simon and Ainsworth’s (2012) study titled “Race and Socioeconomic Status Differences in Study Abroad Participation: The Role of Habitus, Social Networks and Cultural Capital” found that students with a positive predisposition to travel and experiencing different cultures were more likely study abroad and, as a result of that, better able to acquire and use cultural capital when accessing information. Additionally, the Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad released data in 2014 that further highlighted the positive influence of study abroad including the following:
- Students completing study abroad programs showed improved academic performance in subsequent terms
- Study abroad students had higher graduation rates
- Study abroad improves academic performance for at-risk students
As mentioned previously, the last few years have seen an increase in minority and diverse students participating in exchanges and study abroad, but there is still work to be done. As higher education professionals, we can use our interactions with students to encourage and highlight the benefits of taking such a journey. We can share resources and financial information for those who face economic barriers. Most importantly, we can drive the point home that an opportunity abroad can only help, not hinder, their preparation in becoming successful and empowered members of society.
Betty Zambrano is responsible for coordinating a variety of events, most notably the Spring and Fall Career Expos at the University of Miami. Prior to joining the staff in December of 2014, Betty served as a Peace Corps volunteer in northern rural Peru, where she worked with local youth promoting higher education and college preparedness. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from the University of Florida.