Study abroad may be advertised to all college students, but exactly what types of students apply and go abroad? While at the Global Student Leadership Summit, one of my main focuses was how to make study abroad a more inclusive experience. I believe a common misconception at Marymount and other institutions is that only students who are upper-middle or upper class are able to study abroad, which feeds into the stigma that study abroad is not an experience of valuable cultural exchange, but a semester-long vacation from college. Thus, we must ask ourselves “What students are we leaving out of the conversation?” The students who are traditionally left out of the conversation are students of color, low-income students, as well as students with physical and mental disabilities. These groups of students are not afforded the same opportunities and end up missing out on an enriching educational experience. Not having access to these opportunities may put these students at a disadvantage when applying to the workforce because they would not have had the exposure to other cultures and may end up lacking skills that their counterparts may have. These students would not have the same ability to address issues of cultural sensitivity and being globally aware. This, in turn, adds to the greater systemic barriers that minority students face. So the question is how do we get these students to study abroad? While attending the GSLS conference I was able to meet with professionals who were addressing these issues by creating programs for underrepresented students.
One of the most influential sessions at the conference was titled Innovation Competition. Reading the program before going to the conference, I was confused as to what an “innovation competition” was. I was very hesitant to attend this session because it did not seen to fit the theme of the rest of the conference, which spoke to identity and how we see ourselves and how others see us when studying abroad. But, much to my surprise, the Innovation Competition absolutely blew me away with the innovated work of professionals were doing in order to incorporate inclusivity into study abroad. At the competition, 7 groups of students, faculty and professors presented their solutions to limited study abroad access to marginalized students. These groups were selected from an array of other projects and all 7 were competing for a cash prize, which would be used to further their work. I was simply blown away by each and every one of these presentations and this gave me hope to see a variety of students study abroad in the future.
There were two presentation that stood out to me and that, I believe, embodied inclusivity and will make traveling more accessible. The first presentation addressed the issue of accessibility for students with disabilities while traveling abroad. The presenter spoke about the program she created which taught her able-bodied students how to assist a variety of students with disabilities travel abroad. She taught her students how to describe art to those are blind or visually impaired. She taught students how to assist those in wheelchairs with getting on and off the subway. The professor paired up with disabled students to find out what their exact needs were and jointly came up with the course material. After the able-bodied students learned the techniques in the classroom, they were able to put them into practice by traveling abroad together. The work of this professor was incredibly inspiring to me because I fell victim to the thought that “disabled students do not go abroad.” I am not even sure if I fell victim to that thought or it wasn’t even a thought at all. When study abroad is advertised, you see students with backpacks overlooking mountains or going on excursions in the jungle. Students in wheelchairs are never posted on the front of providers pamphlets nor is there much talk about accommodations when meeting with providers either. This, in turn, causes students to not even think study abroad is available to them, which is definitely not true. In addition to seeing this presentation, I met multiple students who were able to study abroad with disabilities who were part of the summit with me as well. This experience allowed me to not only think about the traditional study abroad student, but to look at making all students study abroad students. While this was the most eye opening presentation, there was another presentation that resonated with me.
The second presentation that I related to was from a high school Spanish teacher. He created a program that allowed his black students to travel to Spain to have a better practical application of Spanish rather than sitting in the classroom. Once his students came back from Spain, he connected the students with a retirement home where they were able to speak to the residents in Spanish while playing Bingo. This inspired me because as a black student who is learning Spanish, it is definitely hard to use Spanish outside of the classroom. Traveling to two Spanish-speaking countries afforded me the opportunity to see how important it was to learn the language in order to better communicate with other people. It is hard to think about the practical application of Spanish while sitting in a classroom in an English-speaking nation where it seems like just another class to take because it is a requirement. Traveling allows you to connect a language with a culture and a community. This was definitely a program I would have taken part of and would have inspired me to take learning Spanish seriously in high school.
I was incredibly honored to be presented with the opportunity to attend this conference. It was incredibly inspiring to meet others who were positively impacted by their study abroad experience and wanted to share that experience with as many people as possible. This conference allowed me to think about how to include underrepresented students in the study abroad conversation. I believe Marymount is headed in the right direction by making studying abroad accessible to all students. There are multiple resources available at Marymount that allow students to have the financial means to go abroad. I personally have benefited from multiple scholarships and financial aid that enable me to go to two different countries. Having a variety of program options, such as global classrooms to semester-long programs allow for different pricing options and scheduling options for students of different backgrounds to travel. While we do have the variety, I believe we can push to make Marymount scholarships and outside scholarships more accessible to all, so students know that finances are not a barrier for them. My hope for the future is for study abroad to be accessible to every student and there is an immense amount of cultural exchange.