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Malia Obama and the Gap Year

Posted By Trixie Cordova, Monday, May 16, 2016
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2016

It was recently announced that Malia Obama, the eldest daughter of the first family, was accepted into Harvard University, her parents’ alma mater. However, unlike most graduating high school seniors this year who will be attending university in the fall, the Obama’s announced that Malia will be taking a gap year instead.

As International Educators, we already understand the personal, academic and professional benefits that students gain when going abroad. So what does Malia’s decision to take a gap year say about how life-experiences are valued by today’s youth, and what kind of impact might this have on diverse students’ college preparedness and travel opportunities in the future?

For those that may be unfamiliar, a gap year refers to a period of time (typically a full academic year) some students take between graduating from high school and beginning their first year of college. During this year, students typically travel around the world or take on professional roles to experience the “real world”. It’s fairly common for students in the E.U., and only recently has become a more familiar practice here in the U.S.

Now that Malia Obama has decided to take a gap year, their popularity is now poised to increase among American high school graduates in upcoming years, which I think can positively impact the number of students going on study abroad as well.

In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Global Citizen Year founder Abigail Falik argues that the traditional route of heading straight to college might not always allow students to experience the type of growth a gap year affords. Without a gap year, students may continue on to college as “excellent sheep -- great at what they’re doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Going straight to college is common practice, and every year, high school students start college with little to no real world experience at all, yet manage to figure it out. However, a staggering number of students drop out after their first year, particularly black and Latino students that may find themselves ill-prepared for the high-stakes pressure and expectations of being a college student. This might seem like a stretch, but I don’t think it’s impossible to think that a gap year can help to prepare these students for life in college, and possibly impact their graduation rates overall.

While we await to see what Malia makes of her gap year, hopefully her decision encourages other families to see the value of gaining international exposure as part of overall development, and one that positively impacts young adults to be even more prepared for life as a college student. And if a gap year still seems like an intimidating process for families and their children to consider, then hopefully they’ll choose to learn more about study abroad as another way to gain that real world experience they’re seeking.

Increasing awareness about the benefits of a gap year can mean increasing awareness about the benefits of studying abroad. I’m looking forward to seeing the impact that Malia’s decision makes in the number of students and families at least inquiring to learn more, if not actually pursuing global opportunities for personal and professional growth.

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Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Students Talking to Parents about Education Abroad

Posted By Carla Sinclair, Monday, May 9, 2016
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2016

Studying abroad is one of the most valuable assets you as a student can take away from your academic careers. The benefits range from honing foreign language skills to increasing cultural awareness, to name a few. But traveling internationally comes with some risks, and it may be the first time you’ve been away from home — or from your home country — which might rattle the nerves of your parent or guardian. And sometimes, no amount of assurances or pamphlets can keep a worried parent happy, so keep these things in mind before and during your time abroad.

Be patient, and be prepared.

When you initially bring up the prospect of studying abroad, be ready to answer some questions. Especially for first-generation college students, the idea of packing up and hopping on a plane for a semester or year can be a daunting idea for a parent to wrap their mind around; be sure to have all the information about the program, the advisor, where you’ll be staying and more to show that you’ve done your research and that you’ll be in good hands. And remember not to get too frustrated if they’re worried! You’re their child. It’s only natural.

Know how you’re going to pay.

Other than safety, financial concerns can play a big role in a caregiver’s apprehension to studying abroad. Let them know that it doesn’t have to come straight out of your or their pockets — there are plenty of resources to tap into to fund a program abroad. Check out Diversity Abroad’s scholarship center, where you can find a number of different scholarships and grants to ease the burden of paying for a program.Talk to your international education advisor to further explore your choices, but one thing’s for certain: it doesn’t have to fall on your parents. Be prepared with the information to show money isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Set up modes of communication.

While abroad, there are always methods of keeping in touch with your parents to give them the occasional check-in — they’re going to want to hear all about your experiences (and make sure you’re keeping safe)! Most cell providers offer international plans, which might be cheaper than making international calls. Prepaid phones or SIM cards are also useful for keeping in touch with your fellow study abroad peers, as well as contacting your parents. If there’s internet available, free applications such as Skype, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger can be used to call, video chat or text-message using only just wifi, making them a valuable resource for spontaneous checkins. Set up a set time to connect as well, whether it be a certain time of day or week where they know you’ll touch base. And remember to keep it!

Know what to do during an emergency.

While no one wants anything bad to happen, when bad situations arise it’s best to be prepared. Make sure your parents have the numbers of advisors at your base school as well as at your host institution, and the address where you’ll be living. Make sure to have proof of your medical coverage and identification on you at all times as well, as having this important information on you will help assure your parents you’re prepared for any situation.

Have fun!

Your caregivers want what’s best for you — sometimes taking that leap can be little scary. If you cover your bases and show them you’re knowledgeable, prepared and just a phone/Skype call away, they’ll see the value of a study abroad experience. And don’t forget to take pictures to show them when you get back!

Contributed by: Carla Sinclar, Diversity Abroad Communications Intern

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Diversity Network Member Highlight: University of Wisconsin - Madison

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 9, 2016
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2016



Institution Name 

University of Wisconsin-Madison, International Academic Programs


Madison, WI 

Institutional Profile

Large (over 15,000)

How long has your organization/institution been a member?

Joined in 2014

Why did your institution decide to join the Diversity Abroad Network?

International Academic Programs  has a commitment to having all students study abroad, and we wanted to be involved in a national organization that is a leader in the access and inclusion conversation.  We were hoping to get more resources to provide to our students to better support them and be even more intentionally involved in the dialogue and action for equitable access.

What Diversity Network resource has been most useful for you and your colleagues in advancing diversity & inclusive excellence in global education?

The country climate notes are very helpful in working with students and program leaders.

How has membership with the Diversity Network helped your institution make global education more accessible to students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds?

We have been able to send staff to the annual conference each year.  That has helped us talk with colleagues and get ideas of other initiatives that colleagues are taking across the country that we can implement on our campus.  We also are able to use the resources, such as the country climate notes, to create new advising tools for students.

Please describe any innovative initiatives related to diversity and inclusion in global education that your institution is currently undertaking. 

University of Wisconsin - Madison created a new program called the Global Gateway. Started in 2014, it is a faculty-led four-week long concentrated learning experience for 15 students in any major who have completed their first year or second year of studies at UW-Madison. The intent is to provide a study abroad opportunity and introduction to international issues to a new audience who otherwise would not participate, specifically targeting: first-generation college students, those who have not previously traveled abroad, and those from low-income families. 

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Tackling the “T” in STEM…Increasing Technology Participation in Study Abroad

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 25, 2016
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2016

Submitted by Diversity Abroad 2015/2016 Task Force on STEM Disciplines: Ahaji Schreffler, Drexel University; Kate Moore, Academic Internship Council; Kristy Saerbry, Wake Forest University.

As study abroad professionals tackle the barriers of increasing participation of students in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine, one STEM discipline presents particularly unique challenges: Technology.

A critical step in any STEM study abroad strategy is eliciting buy‐in from faculty so students are encouraged and supported. The advantages of study abroad can seem more straightforward to convey for disciplines such as engineering and medicine given the increasingly multicultural population, global collaboration on research, and international workforce.  Faculty and students in these fields may be more inclined to see the value of study abroad as a platform for international research, collaboration, and learning from practitioners in existing and expanding networks around the globe.

When it comes to technology, on the other hand, it can be a harder sell. It means convincing faculty in fields like informatics and computing that study abroad has equal benefit for their students who are preparing for a virtual work environment within which travel is nearly irrelevant. Students will often comment that the most relevant advances in technology are within the States. Beyond the intrinsic value of experiencing other cultures and landscapes, what exactly are the advantages of study abroad for students in technology and how can study abroad professionals effectively cultivate faculty buy‐in beyond the virtual world? Which existing models can provide guidance? How can program administrators link existing models with faculty cultivation and student participation?

Coursework Identification

In order to gain support of faculty members, study abroad professionals should first start by identifying programs that offer technology and computing courses that complement their own university’s curriculum. As technology‐based majors increase on campuses across the US, more programs are offering courses that provide this population of students opportunities to study abroad. For example, programs such as DIS Copenhagen have added technology‐based tracks and courses to their offerings. AIT Budapest has an entire program dedicated to Computer Science and Engineering. There are also several universities abroad, such as Cardiff University in Wales or the University of Melbourne in Australia, that accept visiting students and offer an abundance of technology‐based courses.

Campus Collaboration

Additionally, it is important that study abroad professionals build positive relationships with the technology and computing departments on their campus. This can be done through a variety of ways:

● Work with faculty on curriculum and abroad program approval

● Invite members of the faculty to study abroad committee/staff meetings

● Offer opportunities for faculty to participate in program site visits

● Encourage faculty members to lead their own programs abroad

● Provide incentives for faculty to incorporate international components into their courses each semester

By engaging faculty members with the study abroad process, they will gain insight into the many benefits of study abroad and the impact an international experience can have on their students.

Career Motivation

In response to economic trends and student populations, the need to demonstrate relevance of experiences to employability has never been greater. This is particularly true with technology students, who are often balancing the opportunity cost of paid experiences at home with additional financial commitment to study abroad.   

While general data has begun to illustrate the return on investment for study abroad, as amalgamated through UC Merced (http://studyabroad.ucmerced.edu/study-abroad-statistics/statistics-study-abroad), specific studies for technology students are yet to be realized.

However, there are some strong correlations between skills employers are emphasizing in recruitment or retention and the aptitudes that students gain through study abroad. Notably among these are dealing with ambiguity, showing initiative, and excelling on global or virtual teams. Students are advised to select programs that allow them to build these skills. In addition, students and faculty are urged to provide frameworks for students to articulate their study abroad experience as it relates to future academic endeavors and career development. Sample resources include – but are far from limited to – the following:  Student guidance from University of Virginia School of Commerce (https://www.commerce.virginia.edu/career-services/marketing-your-study-abroad) and program administrator research and recommendations from Michigan State University (http://studyabroad.isp.msu.edu/research/Gardner_Gross_The%20Lorax%20Moment.pdf)

By tackling the unique challenges of technology in a systematic way, study abroad professionals will be able to create approaches for increasing participation of students in all STEM disciplines but most importantly work towards increased collaboration across campus and expanded conversation related to the relevance of experiences abroad.

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Straddling Two Worlds

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2016

Guest Blogger: Myla Harris 

I belong to a small (but growing) group of people around the world who can call themselves expatriates.  I’ve often lingered over the term, wondering if it suits my particular journey. After all, I have never rejected my country of origin, quite the contrary in fact.  I’m probably more American now than when my family left in 1999 for Germany.  Yet, leave the US my family and I did: experience has shown most people can’t (or maybe even, won’t) understand the reasons behind our choice. Truth be told, we had momentary crisis of faith in our personal experiment, only achieving validation some 17 years later.

           My husband and I were proud parents of one beautiful two and a half year old.  While he garnered unwanted attention almost everywhere we went, his true beauty was/is always in his spirit.  From the moment he would awake until the time he collapsed into bed, he had a question on his tongue.  Books were already his best friends and when he smiled, the whole world smiled with him.  His birth coincided with disturbing reports and statistics about African-American boys.  Could he REALLY grow up and not be defined by race?  He had already entered the world surrounded by people with opinions about whether or not his parents should even be together.  After recovering from giving birth, my obstetric nurse actually refused to come to my aid and made it clear all patients in her eyes were not considered equal.  My husband and I got our first lesson in what awaited for us in our new identity as a family.  We lived in a fairly diverse, yet segregated North Eastern section of the US.  During daily outings, we were either the main attraction at what felt like the zoo or made to endure a grand inquisition of inappropriate questions:

“How did your son get BLUE eyes?!”

“Is he yours?”

“What nationality is his mother?” (when I was not present)

“Does his father have blue eyes too?” (when my husband wasn’t present)

“My friend has a colored child, don’t they look really cute?”

We increasingly wondered how one very small boy would be able to grow and even thrive under the weight of the importance placed on all things related to race in America.  We wanted our son to grow into whomever he chose to be without having to check a box or choose one aspect of his ethnicity over the other.  We didn’t want his potential stunted or his opportunities reduced and above all, we knew we had the option to make life affirming changes not necessarily available to everyone else.  When the opportunity to move to Europe arose, we jumped.

           Our son is now 19 years old and has an 8 year old sister who has joined us on this amazing journey.  For the last 14 years, we have lived in the South of France.   Neither he nor his sister have ever  had to check a box indicating their race; they enjoy a position of privilege that comes with being dual French /American nationals.  They’ve been raised speaking three languages: French, German (my husband’s first language) and English.  Every chance we get, we travel within France and Europe to expose them to different cultures and ways of life.  We can do this fairly easily, even with modest means, given the proximity of other European countries.

           The choices to be here were difficult and involved many sacrifices on all of our parts.  We first arrived with only suitcases and have had to carve out new lives for ourselves.  Having an ocean separate us from friends and family has meant we missed weddings, births, and even funerals.  We often struggle with having a coherent sense of place and struggle with how to best define ourselves.

We haven’t outrun racism or discrimination and ignorance can be found in equal abundance but some things have changed.  Our children entered a world of privilege the moment we left the US.  We are no longer identified uniquely by our race but are now AMERICAN first.  When our children speak French (better than their parents by the way), they are simply viewed as being French.  Leaving the US has provided them with opportunities they could never have attained had we remained within the United States.

Our son entered University last year and returned to the US for the first time without his parents in toe.  While he has thrived academically and even enjoyed learning his fourth language while studying in Italy for a semester, he has had a harder time adapting to the racial climate in the United States.  Our weekly chats are often full of stories trying to understand segregation on campus or the awkward encounters with fellow students who simply ignore him.  I’m afraid our talks regarding how to conduct himself as an African-American young man in the community and if stopped by the police may have instilled some fear. We haven’t had a need for those talks in France, though racism exists, it inhabits a very different space in the collective French consciousness.  Our son has recently revealed he understands the decisions we made more than ever and validated those choices.  It was a bittersweet moment.

While we have been fortunate in having the opportunity to call two countries our home, this journey really started through two people exposed to international education opportunities.  I met my husband in high school when he moved to the US from Germany.  I fell in love with all things French as a French immersion student in primary school and study abroad alumni.  After all this time abroad, raising my children, navigating different cultures and academic systems, I can think of no other way to empower students, especially students who are of color, than the opportunity to step outside of our American context and challenge the status quo.  My children have gotten a chance to experience what it means not to be defined by their race.


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