Does Diversity Have a Place in the Health and Safety Conversation?
At initial glance, it may seem that student’s health and safety considerations may have very little to do with their personal identity. All students, after all, should be prepared for the physical, emotional, and mental strain related to acclimating to a new environment. All students should be briefed in the potential safety and security concerns of the country in which they will be living. So how exactly would a student’s identity influence this conversation? The short answer is in ways that we as international educators may not have considered before. The longer response is that it depends.
This is an area of health and safety that has grown significantly in the previous decade, not only in education abroad, but also in higher education more broadly. Going abroad can be a major life event for many of the students who are able to participate in an activity like study abroad. The experience of adapting to a new environment, a new group of peers, a new system of coursework, and managing relationships back home can be stressful for many students who go abroad. For students from racial and ethnic minority groups, first generation college students, and low-income students these stressors have the potential to be compounded.
Isolation is a frequently cited experience for students from diverse racial and ethnic populations as well as those from lower-income households. Being “the only one” (e.g., African American, Native American, Latino) on the program has the potential to create an environment where students who identify as the only one of their background on the program may not feel comfortable discussing particular challenges they may be experiencing while abroad. Similarly, students from low-income backgrounds may feel more isolated if they are not able to participate in excursions that come at an extra cost or travel regionally as some of their peers may. Often times, situations that arise as a result of a student’s background have the potential to fester, as many students may not see such incidents as worthy of reporting. Students from underrepresented backgrounds are often taught to manage these challenges independently, and support staff may not hear about situations (e.g., faculty member calls on only Asian American student in class when discussing Chinese culture, African American student is the only one in the group who is searched upon entry of a local club).
Seeking Out Resources and Local Diversity
We hear often of students from diverse backgrounds looking for specific products, services, or venues that are connected to their identity. It may be African American students looking for hair products or barbers/stylists who have experience with their hair type, or Latino students looking for cooking ingredients that remind them of home, Jewish students looking for Kosher-friendly stores, or students of a particular faith seeking out a place of worship. At first glance this may seem related to local culture more than safety, however, if we consider that students may be finding these resources by searching online and heading to a part of town they may not be familiar with, what was initially an effort to find relevant resources could turn into a potentially complicated excursion. There is, of course, a need to balance encouraging independent exploration with health and safety concerns. However, students can be encouraged to engage in “exploration within boundaries.” If we as international educators provide some of these resources in advance about a variety of places where they can find these products and services, students will have reliable information with the option to explore these venues independently.
While these are but two examples of how identity intersects with health and safety, there are certainly other ways in which students from diverse backgrounds may have unique health and safety considerations that all students could benefit from hearing about as they prepare to go abroad. Students from diverse backgrounds certainly benefit from having information and support as it relates to these topics, but students who may not initially identify with an underrepresented group also gain from engaging in these conversations. After all, students’ health and safety is a group responsibility, and it benefits all education abroad students to know how identity intersects with their experience on the ground.
Suggested Resources for Students
- List of local resources related to health and beauty that includes venues that provide products and services for diverse populations (e.g., general drug stores, drug stores that carry ethnic beauty supplies, barbers, salons).
- Pre-departure discussion and on-site orientation that addresses current climate of diversity of the city/town (e.g., address what local “diversity” means).
- List of places of worship for diverse religious groups.
- Super market or store recommendations that include more affordable grocery options, ethnic cuisine and ingredients, and Kosher and halal options.
- A “staff picks” list of diverse restaurant options.
- Recurring conversation group (middle and end of the semester or program) for students on the program to discuss their experiences, how they’ve adapted, challenges, and highlights.
- Frequent messages either via email or social media that remind students to share their experiences with staff.
What other strategies has your organization or institution undertaken to address diversity and identity in health and safety discussions?