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CAPA Pres & CEO John Christian Asks What If We Are Successful in DA Conf Plenary Address

Monday, July 18, 2016  
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CAPA International Education‘s President/CEO John Christian spoke at the inaugural Diversity Abroad Conference in Chicago earlier this month. The conference, with the tag line “Changing Landscapes: Strategies and Opportunities for Greater Access”, offered a platform for new ideas on this enormous topic to circulate and conversations to begin. His speech posed the important question: “What if we are successful?” What happens if we reach our diversity goals? Read John’s speech below and let us know what you think in the comments!

“What If We Are Successful?”

In learning abroad we are always talking about strategies that create viable study abroad options for students from various under-represented communities through financial, psychological and educational pathways.

The students who will benefit from these strategies are, briefly categorized but not limited to, those of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds, varying disciplines, financial status, sexual identity and comfort zones.

They may be first time higher education learners or first time travelers and have differing physical and mental abilities and challenges, both visible and invisible.

I think it’s time to ask ourselves the question: What is the ultimate goal of diversity in learning abroad and how will we get there? Is it to create access and raise statistics among under–represented student groups?

Or is it something much greater as they embark upon a journey that places them in a new student community of complex and diverse values, beliefs, abilities and dreams; in a location that is inherently foreign to them?

What personal growth are we looking to offer them and how will we achieve this through the experiences we create for them abroad?

Are we aspiring to a larger social/political agenda: “a societal shift”?

To me, this greater agenda is about the high level vision, delivery and mission of our work. It’s about our commitment to building learning communities within our students as they grow to appreciate the diversity among their peers and within their new location.

This new student community is much in contrast to the sometimes elite, white female dominated one with which we are most familiar.

The transformational aspiration is surely to move them to a place of advocacy and to participate in and value the benefits of a diverse and globalized future.

So how do we bridge this gap between the under-representation and our commitment to the notion of diversity? Is the work of access and education out of sync with our mission as international educators?

So I ask you, WHAT IF we do realize the dream of having our programs populated with students from these many different identities and from a range of institutions each with its distinctive culture, ethos and campus life?

A student may have chosen an institution because of a religious connection/ideology, they may have chosen to be at a HBCU, or another very personal factor may have directed their institution of choice and we are now melting them into one student community in a diverse international location.

We then ask them to connect to each other and adapt as learners and individuals within this new set of rules and mores. We are essentially building a community of students, not just a pathway into other established communities.

This is also a unique result of how international education organizations recruit students from multiple institutions and what the implications of this will be on the student’s community and learning environment.

A consequence of the work of international education organizations (IEOs), and the center based model in particular, is this distinctive environment in which students can learn from each other within the “community/communities” of other US students abroad.

To my knowledge, there is very little discussion of the implications of that outcome. Students who in some cases may not engage with each other very much on a US campus are brought together abroad – what does that mean?

Is this an implicit learning objective or an ironic consequence of education abroad, in that students can learn about diversity at home because they are abroad and united by the experience of being outsiders: strangers in strange lands?

We need to address this and create effective strategies for building these connections.

If we achieved somewhere near the Simon dream of 1 million, we would be further challenged in several unanticipated ways:

  1. By resources as implied above.
  2. By attitudes that may not cohere with the embedded liberalism in much of education abroad curricula.
  3. By new perspectives and expectations.

If we envisage the movement from what is now often seen as an elite activity to a mass activity, the impact on services and pedagogies would be significant. We have not yet had that conversation but it is is now timely and even overdue.

The 2013 Diversity Conference, alongside the work of Diversity Abroad and the Diversity Network is the perfect opportunity to open this dialogue.

The ultimate solution is to teach “diversity” as a topic.

At CAPA, we believe that diversity is more than an ethical imperative centered on access; it is an operational principle and a subject we teach study abroad students that supports our global cities agenda. It is at the core of the educational pedagogy by which we conduct our programs.

Here are some potential strategies not considering the challenges and of course necessary funding, so this perhaps is also aspirational.

  • Generate formal and informal educational opportunities for students to examine and explore their experience and the role of diversity in that experience and to create a meaningful transaction between the two.
    • Formal by weaving diversity themes into the curriculum through our syllabi. This is not without its challenges not the least of which is training faculty, some of which may be your own and most of which will work for another institution.

We also have a rise in faculty led and short term programs. We will therefore be making demands on our own US faculty that are not commonly made on faculty in US higher education.

  • Informal: using one of our core learning abroad pedagogies – experiential learning to challenge comfort zones, encourage growth through community relationships, both within the student body and their learning abroad location by weaving diversity themes into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. In doing so we must also ensure that we understand that experiential learning is not simply learning through experience but needs to be structured, thoughtful and based upon a set of intended learning outcomes.
  • Forming diversity committees exchanging/sharing/comparing diversity practices among program directors in the USA and abroad.
  • In Buenos Aires, for example, we examine transgender as evidenced in the media and on the streets.
  • In Australia, multiculturalism as a government policy.
  • In Beijing, the conflict among the many ethnic minorities in China.
  • And in Italy, the Italian way of doing so many things is just different.
  • We need to build in opportunities for leadership from within the student body by creating student councils with budgetary power and diversity as part of their agenda.
  • Training and more training. This goes without saying, but staff diversity and training is mission critical in this work.
    • This includes the appointment of diversity advisers in the US and abroad to facilitate community understanding and relations.  
    • As Mary points out, our aspiration here is that program staff reflects the same diversity as the student body, and are well-trained counselors and facilitators who work effectively with students in all phases of the study abroad experience.
    • They would have an understanding of personal development issues for this age group, as well as the skills to assist students in the exploration of their identities.
  • To examine what role social media can have on the various ways students reflect on and share their experiences. The prevalent use of social media has actually become one of our biggest areas of conflict and opportunity in this work.
  • As students process their experiences they express themselves through social media. Sometimes to share stories and sometimes share fears or even vent on how their new experiences simply do not make sense to them or in fact are not in their view a positive experience. We need to offer guidelines to help students use social media as an outlet for sharing and learning and when they fall down, it’s a teachable moment for us.
  • Having had Diversity Abroad run workshops with us in the US and internationally has genuinely had a professional developmental impact on CAPA staff. Of course this all takes funding.
  • To understand that diversity is not limited to the “usual suspects” and the need to create opportunities for every student to express their individuality.
  • We need to understand that identity is not fixed. All young people experiment with their identities. Education abroad empowers students to develop a sense of self in intense and accelerated ways – sometimes free from burdens of pre-defined roles at home.
  • Above all, create a safe environment where students can explore their own identities and then be comfortable enough to share them with each other.

We can also work to raise the bar on the strategy and outcomes of our work. Much the same as the FORUM has moved the field towards standards for best practice and quality assurance in learning abroad, Diversity Abroad, through this conference and their excellent work, can move us towards strategy, action and assessment more significant than scholarships and accessibility – towards education through diversity.

“What are the implications and potential hazards?”

We have begun to implement many of these items at CAPA and I can tell you colleagues, we still have problems that are a result of our increasingly diverse student body.

We are not a large organization, so putting diversity at the top of the agenda takes some real planning, finance and hard work.

We have had students from almost every corner of the diversity cube.  We have housed students from these varying backgrounds and identities together and sometimes it simply does not work.

Even with informed advisers and thoughtful interventions some issues remain insolvable.

What I can tell you is that this is every bit as much of a strategic plan as it is a fiscal commitment which requires the thumbprint of every individual working at our organization.

So while I believe a conference like this puts us on the right path, the real work is only just beginning. What I do know is that we must ensure this part of the agenda receives attention and successful methodologies are shared and repeated.

Adding to the pressure recent figures put together from an article titled “The Changing Face of Study Abroad” recently used data from the 2010 and 2011 open doors report to suggest that financial accessibility has had an impact on the length of programs students are choosing.

  • 8 week or less program rose by 20.91 %
  • Academic year down by over 9%
  • Semesters down by almost 3%
  • Quarters down by over 11%

This potentially creates a yet more serious challenge. Understanding comes with education, communication, in our case, pedagogy, and above all – time. The challenge here is to understand how we can achieve some or any of our important work when the time we have students abroad is shrinking. I cannot address that here but know it has to be on our agenda for the future.

This conference is of course the place to consider this.  Yes it is about access – psychological, affordable, logistical, academic, lifestyle, and personal.  But the real story lies in what happens after we achieve success with the access agenda.

So I ask you are we prepared? If not, we need to be.

A line from a poem “To his Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvel comes to mind here “Had we but world enough, and time”.

(Originally Posted in 2013)