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What are we still talking about?

Monday, July 18, 2016  
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In education abroad questions of diversity and under-representation are nearly always properly co-related. In simple terms, a consequence of the exclusion of certain regions, groups and disciplines leads to a relative lack of diversity on education abroad programmes. This is the basic reality with which we need to engage at a level beyond rhetoric. In my thirty odd years in education abroad I have observed the fact that we have huffed and puffed, and notably failed to blow the house down.

The barriers to participation are very familiar. They may, for example, be related to imagination, to cost and circumstance, to discipline, to geography, to gender, to family and peer attitudes, to culture, to ethnicity and so on. There is also not necessarily a universal recognition of the value of education abroad and some colleagues in academia (and elsewhere) may view what we do as of peripheral value. We are somewhat to blame for this. Study abroad is sometimes seen as frippery, a kind of quasi-tourism, because of the manner in which we have too often used the language of tourism to promote our activities. The challenge is, therefore, complex. We have to convince academia that our activities are worthwhile in general and, then, convince students from under-represented groups that these are both worthwhile and, in particular, relevant to them.

If we are to move forward more purposefully we need to be a little more nuanced in our discussions and to acknowledge that, for example, under-representation is not an absolute condition but a relative state. Therefore, compared to continental European students American students in general are under-represented in international educational mobility. However, compared to students from the developing world, many American students are hugely privileged and empowered to pay for, and benefit from, international experience. Consequently, absolute or “global” solutions are likely to be utopian and to remain ineffective, if well-intentioned. To impact upon US education abroad, efforts to make the student body more diverse are likely be conditional, relative, concrete and accumulative. If we seek to change the whole world, we are likely to fail; if we establish concrete and manageable targets, we are likely to make some important differences.

Why bother?

The case for diversity must go further and deeper than vague aspiration. Diversity is, in fact, already at the core of study abroad in a number of significant ways. Experiential education is a key pedagogy and is enhanced by the exploration of landscapes beyond the familiar. Education abroad implicitly or explicitly recognises the benefits of the diversification of learning environments. Diversity is also an inevitable subject in education abroad. Students engage critically with various communities, intellectual approaches, methodologies, perspectives, ethical relativism and cultural imperatives in ways that ultimately demonstrate the reality of our very diverse world. This is not a view that will necessarily become readily apparent to students who do not leave their geographical, social, cultural or intellectual zones of safety. Thus, diversity at some level is our subject matter and pedagogical methodology.

As an outsider (from the UK) peering myopically in to higher education in the USA, I am also sometimes surprised that opportunities for learning about diversity are not more systematically created on many US campuses. Given that a considerable number of students will never study abroad, the exploration of diversity at home can be created through a number of mechanisms: curriculum development and community engagement are obvious. I also suspect that the potential for co-operation between international education and multi-cultural education is under-explored, but significant. There are, of course, “political” and territorial issues (as ever) on campuses but beneath the superficiality of difference (and beyond the fight for resources), there is a core of shared and co-related perspectives with potential for mutual enrichment. Multi-cultural education could be exposed to what that term means in various international contexts (often not the same thing as in the USA). International education would benefit from an understanding of how cultural diversity is manifest at home. I suspect that greater co-operation between these agencies would also, ultimately, encourage wider participation in education abroad. The line between multi-cultural education and international education is blurred and the points of intersection create zones of potential mutual enlightenment.

Simply, some groups are under-represented and, as we believe in the value of what we do, we seek to find ways to broaden participation from those excluded groups. There are many anecdotal reasons given for the fact that some groups do not participate to the degree to which we would aspire. These are, sometimes, supported by research and, in any case, contain elements of probable truth. For example, men are under-represented because we have failed to make the case for the importance of education abroad as career enhancement. This is a consequence of promoting location over serious content. Professional and natural scientific fields tend not to participate for a combination of co-related reasons; in some disciplines, US universities create curriculum paths that are rigid and inflexible (they are, demonstrably, unconvinced of the value of diverse learning). As a result, there are fewer programmes available (but, we have not built them). We have not done enough to encourage students with physical difficulties (though “Mobility International” has made significant efforts in this regard). In short, the nature of under-representation is multi-layered and complex. There are no quick fixes or easy global solutions. Rather, we need to commit to the possible and leave the rest to the dreamers.

The starkest example of under-representation is, certainly, that manifest through exclusion by ethnicity. The percentage of African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic students, for example, participating in our programmes is very limited. This creates an urgent agenda. In saying that, I am conscious of the fact that this area has been most beset by the rhetoric of good intentions and by the relative failure of substantial delivery. There is a plethora of analysis and speculation that, in essence, boils down to a few assertions: cost may be a barrier; cultural attitudes create a sense that education abroad is not relevant or appropriate; some locations are perceived as less hospitable and so on. These clearly contain some element of truth but they are also conditional obstructions (not absolutes) and some steps have been taken to overcome these.

Some institutions and organizations have worked effectively to erode some of the barriers. Many of us have created programmes, services, actions and scholarships aimed at attracting, and better serving, under-represented groups. For example, CAPA International Education has established a set of strategies based on curriculum in “global cities” and, simultaneously, outreach to relevant communities. We are not alone in this important work and the path ahead has to be based on cooperation and collective will. The world is not marked by equality of opportunity. The USA is a culture where inequality is a historical (and arguably current) reality. Prejudice and discrimination are embedded in many parts of the world. Education is an expensive commodity; some groups in the developing world (for example) cannot afford to participate in any higher education at all, let alone higher education abroad. Relative wealth creates relative exclusion globally and nationally. There is clearly no single radical solution to these problems. What we need to create are strategies for improvement that recognise the limitations and capabilities of our specific institutions. Like any other strategic plan, this may contain flawed aspirations with some success and much failure. That said, small successes have the power to generate change: a pebble thrown in to the pond may create many ripples.

An imperfect world is not a reason to do nothing. If it were, we would all huddle together to await, in passive expectation, the arrival of a Messiah. Without disrespect to the prophets among us, that is not a path towards social improvement. We need to make decisions about priorities and resources that are, ultimately, political rather than prophetic. The path ahead is difficult, winding and the point of arrival is misty and unclear. The journey is, however, necessary for those of us who believe in social and natural justice.

The Question of Justice

I have had a long commitment to enhancing diversity in education abroad for any number of personal and professional reasons. I am a first-generation college graduate and, as Jew born in the East End of London shortly after World War II, I have some sense of what it is to be part of a minority. My life was immeasurably enhanced by international experience and one wishes others to similarly benefit. As a teacher and educationalist I know that a diverse student body profoundly enriches the learning environment. In service of that mission, I joined CAPA because of a sense of common purpose and shared aspiration. We have formed alliances and partnerships, and created programmes, that enable us to take some small steps on the rocky path to greater diversity. For many years, though, the broader discussion of widening participation has been mired in high-flown rhetoric rather than action. Our collective obligation in education abroad is now to go beyond rhetoric. As a field in which cosmopolitanism and international values are implicitly embedded in a common ethical view, we need to be fully aware that increased diversity in the student body is both a moral obligation and a   means of enriching all our experiences.

Above all, I believe that exclusion is a form of prejudice in action; inclusion is a form of natural justice. Striving, however imperfectly, for natural justice is, and must be, an urgent political and ethical imperative.

Dr. Michael Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development, at CAPA International Education. He has held leadership roles in many international education organizations, among them FIE, CIEE and Syracuse University. He has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Mike serves on a number of advisory boards and is a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad

(Originally posted in 2013)