Michelle Obama gave a resounding endorsement of study abroad and global engagement during her recent commencement speech at George Washington University. The First Lady not only discussed the importance of study abroad and global experiences, but encouraged those graduates who had studied abroad to “convince the students behind you to try study-abroad programs — especially students from communities and backgrounds who might not normally consider it.”
What kind of students don’t “consider” study abroad? Turns out Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson) had been one.
“I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where the idea of spending some time abroad just didn’t register,” the First Lady told the 2010 graduating class. “My brother and I were the first in our families to go to college, so we were way more focused on just getting in, getting through, and getting on with our lives. So I just never considered that I needed to take an additional journey or expand the boundaries of my own life.”
Michelle Robinson Obama’s story is not unique. Many first-generation college students can relate to her experience; the idea of studying abroad just isn’t part of their academic plan. But that’s generally not the students’ fault — many of them lack awareness about the benefits and opportunities that study abroad can bring, and many think that study abroad just wouldn’t be possible for them.
If no one is informing and educating the students about the opportunities, how would they know? And if they don’t know about the benefits of study abroad, why would they go?
At a time when global engagement is more important than ever for young people, we as academic professionals must do our part to ensure that all students have equal access to global opportunities.
This doesn't mean that all students will take advantage of study abroad and other international educational opportunities. It means that we must do our part to ensure that students and parents know about the availability of study abroad, how it could impact their lives, and then make it accessible.
Mrs. Obama summed it up by saying “As quickly as the 21st-century global economy moves, we have to find ways to extend those (global) opportunities to as many young people as possible.”
The “we” she speaks of includes all of the academic community. I invite all you to join me and Diversity Abroad as we work to increase diversity and access in study abroad and other global education programs.
Andrew Gordon is the founder and president of Diversity Abroad. He is a graduate of the University of San Francisco, where he studied business, economics and Spanish. He has studied, traveled and worked throughout Europe, South America and Middle East. He started Diversity Abroad in 2006 with the focus of significantly increasing the number of non-traditional students who pursue international education opportunities.