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Crises an “opportunity” to build an equitable future for study abroad

A silver lining to recent crises is that they have provided a "once in a generation" opportunity to rebuild the international education sector as one that serves millions of students – not only the ones who can travel.
August 11 2020
4 Min Read

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have provided a “once in a generation” opportunity to rebuild the international education sector as one that serves millions of students – not only the ones who can travel, according to speakers at a recent conference.

The Diversity Abroad Conference which took place from August 3-7 saw more than 650 participants from 13 countries gather online to discuss methods for supporting international and domestic students through innovative approaches to inclusion in education.

“International education did not work for the vast number of students”

Speaking during the opening plenary, Diversity Abroad founder and CEO, Andrew Gordon, highlighted that even “prior to the Covid-19 crisis, international education did not work for the vast number of students”.

“Education abroad, for example, [catered to] 350,000 students out of more or less 16 million,” he said.

“And even then, students from diverse, historically marginalised backgrounds were underrepresented and undersupported.”

Gordon said that following on from the “initial outrage” over the killing of George Floyd, “there’s been a growing recognition that the old playbook of simply championing or saying one supports diversity will no longer suffice”.

“Now we’re armed with the knowledge of how systemic inequities have impacted our work in the past, we can rebuild a new, more equitable future where we serve millions of students, not only the ones who can travel,” he added.

Speakers during the conference highlighted several initiatives in the US and overseas that have been working to open up study abroad opportunities to a wider cross-section of society.

“Students of African descent across the African diaspora confront five areas that impede their participation: fear, family, friends, faculty and finances,” explained Kim Archung, senior vice president of global student affairs for the African Diaspora Consortium.

“[Our program] reimagines study abroad by confronting these challenges and addressing all five factors simultaneously by grouping students within and across institutions as a cohort, so their fears of feeling alone and in isolation will be mitigated.”

According to Lavar Thomas, co-founder of Leaders of the Free World – which provides study abroad opportunities for young black men – African-American students who study abroad have a 31.2% higher graduation rate than nonparticipants.

“These experiences serve as a catalyst for academic achievement, motivation and even better, career outcomes,” he continued. “Yet black men make up roughly 2% of students who study abroad or participate in international experiences.”

Others highlighted a need to ensure that faculty of colour who lead programs abroad are fully supported in their work.

“I think a lot of us think of recruiting faculty of colour to lead programs as a way of getting more students of colour to study abroad, which is true and accurate,” said Paula Hentz, director of International Learning at Stetson University in Florida.

“But we need to be thinking about the extra work that we’re putting onto these faculty of colour.

“And are we offering them enough support for them to really handle these extra programs and not causing extra undue burden on their mental health and well-being?”

“A lot of us think of recruiting faculty of colour to lead programs as a way of getting more students of colour to study abroad”

Presenting a small survey of faculty of colour at a range of US institutions, study abroad professionals had highlighted their work as a “labour of love done in addition to their regular duties”.

“They’re not getting extra compensation in all these cases,” Hentz explained, warning that there is a “danger of exploitation” of those staff.

Speakers from Belgium, the UK and the US also came together to discuss how students from less-advantaged groups are underrepresented in outward mobility and what can be done to widen participation.

“When we think of education abroad as a by-product of higher education, in the same way that higher education was exclusionary at its roots, education abroad was as well,” said Diversity Abroad’s Gordon.

He explained that the US is at a moment where individual institutions, organisations and professionals that work there are championing diversity and inclusion efforts in diversity abroad.

Gordon pointed out that the IIE’s most recent numbers on students that have gone abroad from ethnic and racial backgrounds show that in 2007/2008, 18% of students who went abroad were students of colour, while in 2017/2018 year that figure had jumped to 30%.

However, there is more to be done according to Gordon, despite this encouraging growth.

“When we look at the percentage of students of colour enrolled in higher education it’s almost 50%, we still see a huge gap in the number of students who are going abroad vs those who enrol in higher education from ethic and racial diversities,” he added.

Policy researcher for UUKi’s Outward Mobility team, Katherine Allinson, spoke about her organisation’s Go International: Stand Out campaign which seeks to double the percentage of UK students who study, work or volunteer abroad.

Allinson explained that the UK has “quite low” rates of participation in the country – currently at 7.8%.

“There’s definitely some room for improvement from a UK perspective,” she said.

The campaign strategy has been to make improvements in this area with around 99 UK universities pledging support so far.

Mobility expert for the Support Center Inclusive Higher Education in Belgium, Dominique Montagnese, spoke about The Inclusive Mobility project (EPFIME), which examines the needs and expectations on inclusive mobility of national authorities, students with disabilities and higher education institutions across Europe.

As part of the project, a series of surveys have been carried out, and the EPFIME has received answers from 1,134 students from more 30 countries, 114 universities and 23 Ministries of Education.

“There’s definitely some room for improvement from a UK perspective”

Montagnese said that at the ministry level, out of 23 countries, just eight have a set of national policy measures or regulations to ensure inclusive mobility towards students with disabilities.

As we look at the future, Gordon at Diversity Abroad explained, we have a once in a generation opportunity to rebuild an entire sector.

The innovation from many institutions and organisations to still deliver global educational opportunities, despite a challenging environment, has been inspiring,” he noted.

“Yes, it’s based in turbulent times and at times it’s hard to see the silver lining… but now we find ourselves in the position where we – the people of international education, culture and exchange – are reimagining and preparing to rebuild our sector.

“Which gives me further optimism,” Gordon added.

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