Global Student Leadership Summit: A Practice in Innovative Reentry Programming
By: Trixie Cordova - Diversity Abroad
When international educators explore ways to improve programming for students going abroad, we often focus our energy by examining four core stages of the student experience: outreach and recruitment, pre-departure, in-country, and reentry. Institutions and providers have developed many creative solutions to address each of these phases in depth, often creating new and innovative ways to address the questions:
What can we do to reach a broader, more diverse student population?
How can we improve pre-departure orientation to accommodate different student identities?
What type of resources exist in-country for students to feel safe while they’re abroad?
What has not gained as much focus is a more in-depth and supportive reentry model to encourage students to think critically and process their experience abroad. Often, discussions on the topic of reentry programming focus on gathering student feedback. Through surveys, focus groups, and evaluations, there is much to understand about the ways we can improve our processes and offerings by asking students how supported they felt by program staff, the academic fit and affordability of their program, as well as their growth on metrics such as intercultural learning, global awareness, adaptability, and independence. Data collection is a critical component to improving how inclusive our practices are, and creates an opportunity for institutions and providers to make data-driven decisions in program design.
But evaluation and assessment aside, where and how are we creating intentional spaces for students to reflect on the ways in which their global experience impacted how they view themselves as global leaders? Specifically, what opportunities exist for diverse and underrepresented students to unpack social and cultural attitudes that informed the way they were treated by their peers, host families, program staff, and random encounters, and how might this inform how they view themselves, as well as their future career aspirations?
Ethnically diverse college students make up more than 40% of the student population enrolled in secondary education in the U.S. Their struggles of belonging and feeling othered have often been researched across campus types for many years (see examples of studies here, and here). The latest Open Doors report found that students of color still make up less than 30% of the overall U.S. student population studying abroad, so It is inevitable that this lack of belonging extends to their overseas experiences. This, coupled with global perceptions and attitudes as to what it means to look/sound/be “American”, can leave a lasting impression on students. Creating an evaluation form or hosting a 1-hour focus group can help in uncovering the root of this issue, but is it enough?
In an article, titled “Study Abroad Could Be So Much Better”, author Stacie Berdan examines this more closely, stating:
“Most students reported even greater difficulties and lack of support upon returning home. They felt less comfortable with their new selves on their old campuses and had trouble reintegrating. They didn’t understand how to leverage their experiences abroad to help them in their remaining studies and in their lives after graduation, whether academically or professionally.
Many students reported feeling frustrated in their relationships with friends and family, often feeling isolated and alone. Although most students seemed to muddle through, chalking up the strenuous readjustment to part of the learning curve, it doesn’t — and, in fact, shouldn’t — have to be that way.” (Berdan, 2015)
For many “first abroad” students, and particularly students of color, there is so much to process throughout all four study abroad phases. From making the decision to go abroad and getting parental support, to meeting with program and academic advisors and submitting the appropriate forms; it’s a lot to take in. Program staff, advisors, and faculty spend hours aiding students through the process of applying for programs and funding, all with the hopes that students will commit and go abroad. And the work doesn’t stop there, as we continue to find ways to ensure they feel healthy and safe while they’re overseas. The questions that remain, however, are: “Are we spending as much time allowing students to unpack their global experiences upon reentry as we do preparing them to go abroad? If not, what prevents us from providing this space?”
The reality is that we know study abroad advisors or program providers have limited time and resources to facilitate the level of dialogue necessary to help students process their experience abroad. In his study on “holistic assessment and the study abroad experience”, Doyle of Central College found:
“The campus community rarely gets a good sense about how students grow and change during their semester(s) studying abroad. By the time students reenter the flow of campus life their distinct memories have faded or they have processed the experience to the point where it is not in the foreground of their life any more. When asked to put their experiences studying abroad into words, students usually can only respond with such unsatisfying phrases as ‘it was great, life-changing,’ or the truly vacuous ‘it was awesome.’ King and Baxter Magolda argue for a more holistic approach to assessing the study abroad experience that can move beyond the vague, attitudinal responses and delve more deeply into student progress toward intercultural maturity.” (Doyle 2009).
Developing effective re-entry programming for diverse and underrepresented students going abroad can positively impact the ways in which students process their experience and how they view themselves and their place in the world. Diversity Abroad’s Global Student Leadership Summit is an intensive three-day re-entry program designed specifically for this purpose. We bring together diverse and underserved students who have previously studied abroad, and invite them to reflect on the ways in which their global experiences impacted their personal identities and professional aspirations. Spending three days with likeminded peers, many of whom identify as ethnically diverse, first-generation, high financial need, and first abroad, allows students to be fully honest and transparent about the impact of these experiences on their evolving identities. Being around non-institutional program staff and advisors also lends itself to creating an environment that allows students to be completely honest and feel safe when processing their experiences.
The GSLS -- held parallel to the annual Diversity Abroad Conference -- provides students with the opportunity to engage in challenging conversations among peers, and to hone their skills to effectively articulate how their global experiences have prepared them for what's next academically and professionally. The ability to make connections with students with whom they can relate helps to alleviate a persistent sense of otherness, and finding community alongside other diverse study abroad alumni can be just as transformational as going abroad, particularly for those attending a predominantly white institution (PWI). Below are just a few thoughtful student reflections on how and why GSLS was such a necessary experience for many:
“I am glad that we were given this opportunity to connect with students who had similar experiences, studied abroad, and have a community to support one another. I learn so much from my peers and also from professionals who have the same values as me. I also love having deep conversations with others and this conference provided that space. Overall, I came back with a broader perspective and so much knowledge about leadership, how to bring it back to campus, and how to help others succeed.”
“A major take-away for me is now being able to properly speak about some of the issues I've encountered abroad, while also using these experiences to develop myself professionally and personally. I also have useful tools that will allow me to encourage other students to take the leap to study abroad as well.”
“Speaking about my identity and hearing others speak about theirs helped me to conceptualize how I view myself as a multi-ethnic young woman in America.”
"I left the Summit with a level of confidence, self-awareness and professional proficiency that I did not have before attending."
"It was powerful! Felt like therapy with people who understood me. A much needed experience."
"Hearing everyone's perspectives during their time abroad and voicing my own helped me to thoroughly process everything that I experienced for the first time."
"I am so grateful for all of you at Diversity Abroad for committing yourselves to helping students like me become their best selves. Thank you for bringing us all together."
To read a full student reflection, please click here.
GSLS is just one example of an innovative reentry program, and student feedback suggests that it is a crucial and necessary, yet rarely provided opportunity for reflection. As International Educators, we should push ourselves to facilitate similar levels of engaging dialogue to aid students who are otherwise unable to attend. Reentry programming, much like pre-departure and in-country support, is of equal importance for our study abroad alumni to get the type of holistic support necessary to readjust into life back on campus and in the U.S.
We encourage you to consider nominating a diverse study abroad alum to participate in this one-of-kind reentry opportunity. Early bird registration for the 4th Annual Global Student Leadership Summit is currently open and accepting nominations. You can read more about nominating students here.