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Andrew Gordon, CEO & Founder, Diversity Abroad, US

Andrew Gordon founded Diversity Abroad in 2006, with the ambition to give young people from underrepresented communities the same chance as their colleagues to study abroad. He told The PIE News about the changes he’s seen in the industry, and whether international HE is succeeding at providing access. 


Photo: The PIE News

I think there's still the perception that our field is elitist

The PIE: ‘Equitable access’ might be seen as a bit of a buzzphrase now, but is the sector actually changing enough?

AG: No, when we have enough is when we actually reach that point where all young people have equitable access to the benefits of global education.

I think sometimes we just focus on access – meaning scholarships – and that’s great, but the work we do isn’t just about the transactional nature of mobility. If that was the case, we’d be glorified travel agents.

The reason why what we do has such a high impact is what happens to the students when they’re on the program.

When we talk about equitable access, the point is who really has access to those benefits. And students gain access to the benefits by how we prepare them, how we support them when they’re on the program, and ultimately how we help them really leverage that international experience toward those benefits: academic benefits, interpersonal benefits, and ultimately, career readiness.

It’s exciting to see the field really starting to discuss diversity and inclusion more, but we haven’t moved beyond discussion. The discussion is important, but we have to get to, ‘OK, how are we actually doing this?’

“Over the years we’ve seen a pretty homogenous group of students studying abroad”

The PIE: And how will you do it? 

AG: I think when we look at how we’re actually doing that, it takes offices and organisations to look internally and say ‘what are our practices, our policies and our procedures, how are we really making these opportunities accessible to all of our students?’

It’s one thing to say, ‘hey we have a study abroad program in Brazil’. But there are points to consider: is the curriculum such that students from a variety of backgrounds will be attracted to it, is the cost point such that students of a variety of backgrounds will be able to go on it? And then we ask, ‘Ok, what’s our support mechanism?’

Take study abroad for example: over the years we’ve seen a pretty homogenous group of students, and I think our colleagues outside the US are used to receiving a certain type of American student.

But the social identities of the students going abroad are changing. One interesting thing about diversity and inclusion is that there’s a certain passion that people have about it, because they identify with a certain social identity, or because this is the right thing to do.

The PIE: You recently worked with the University of Auckland, it’s good to see Diversity Abroad growing globally…

AG: It’s something that we started talking about a couple of years ago and then was really ingrained in our five-year strategic plan, and understanding that the discussions we’re having about diversity and inclusion in the US were being had outside of the US as well.

And so it was interesting, working with the University of Auckland and couple other universities, Hebrew University, University of Cape Town etc. In working with them, I think we began to see that those institutions wanted to know how to how to better recruit students from the US, and how to support their success when they’re on a program. In doing that, and in improving the support structures to US students, ultimately they were able to better support all of their international students.

But the part which is increasingly interesting is to see how institutions outside the US are also trying to get more of their students from diverse and underserved backgrounds. If you think of Auckland with Maori students, wanting to make sure that they have access to international opportunities as well.

In the US, we talk about study abroad being a high-impact practice; well, if it’s a high impact practice in the US it’s going to be a high impact practice for students from other places as well!

The PIE: Can we talk more about Historically Black Colleges – their study abroad offices, do they differ from other universities?

I think structurally if you look at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs, funding is a challenge with those campuses. HBCUs as a whole don’t have huge endowments. And so, I think you see that trickle down to the international operation.

We think of some of our partners like Spelman, North Carolina A&T, or Prairie View University. They’re doing a lot of things around international programming, both in sending students out as well as trying to bring international students in.

The PIE: And in terms of international students coming to HBCUs, what’s the percentage of international students there?

“Black students were the only ones for whom fear was a reason they wouldn’t study abroad”

AG: I don’t know the exact percentages, but what I will say is that at the campuses I just mentioned, and others I’ve visited, chatting with international students is awesome. I think outside the US… I can’t think of other countries that have that [HBCU] structure.

I think of a campus like Spelman or Morehouse, obviously in a large city like Atlanta, for international students that come in, they get a very unique experience at an HBCU educationally, but also access to a large global city as well.

I know, talking with leaders from HBCUs, there’s the desire for partners outside the US. And they are very welcoming campuses as well. I mean sometimes there’s a sense of, ‘Can I go to an HBCU if I’m not a black student?’ The answer is yes, absolutely.

The PIE: Do you think the sector needs to learn from this style and promote more programs for underrepresented students?

AG: Yeah. I think the Howard-CET is a great program. The leadership bringing that together is an example for the field.

Looking and saying, ‘Can we develop some tailored experiences that we know will be geared at certain groups of students, to try to increase participation?’

“If we don’t define who we are, others will”

I think what we have to be careful with as a field is… we don’t want to say anything like ‘in order to get more black kids to study abroad, we can only have these kinds of programs’.

When we think of white students going on that kind of experience – on a program that might be majority African-American – they might not have been able to study in close proximity with large groups of African-American students.

So it’s a benefit for non-minority students to have this kind of opportunity as well.

I think if we’re serious about increasing numbers in a significant way, we can’t keep doing the same thing… the definition of insanity is doing the same thing expecting a different result.

The PIE: Can you expand on that?

AG: How do you position global programs as an investment, not an expense? How are we as a field articulating that to students and their families?

There’s a survey we did a few years back with students, asking them what the barriers were for them to study abroad: across the board students said financial. But… when you look at number two and three, black students were the only ones for whom fear was one of the top reasons why they said they wouldn’t study abroad.

We didn’t drill into what kind of fear, but that was one of the things they chose so… back to the point of why I would say scholarships is not the answer – there are some entrenched perceptions.

The PIE: Is the field still elitist? 

AG: I think there is a level of elitism. I think there’s still the perception that our field is elitist. And, you know, I think that’s a perception problem that we have to solve. If we don’t define who we are, others will.

For international education to continue to be a relevant, vital part of the higher education ecosystem, it cannot be seen as an opportunity just for the elite.

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