Reflections on Diversity Abroad’s Inaugural Conference: The Need for Honest Dialogue about Diversity
Monday, July 18, 2016
Early in my career I remember meeting Diversity Abroad’s founder, Andrew Gordon, at a NAFSA reception and connecting over the promotion of accessibility and diversity in study abroad. I was inspired by the knowledge that there were others out there that shared the same goals and excited about the prospect of connecting with colleagues to find support in this challenging but crucial work. I have long believed that study abroad should be accessible to all students, not just to young people of privilege. Over the years I have been involved in various efforts devoted to incorporating social justice practices into global education, but with completion of my M.A. in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations from SIT Graduate Institute last June, I found myself more committed than ever. Needless to say, when Diversity Abroad’s first annual conference was announced, I was absolutely determined to attend.
For those of us committed to supporting underrepresented students in study abroad, our work often happens in small teams at our universities or within our organizations. We devote considerable time and energy to pushing forward initiatives, repeatedly bringing attention to the need for better support for all our students. While this work is deeply fulfilling and we are gradually making progress, the job also comes with innumerable complexities and uphill battles. For myself, I find that I need to take time to step back and refocus through conversations with other colleagues doing similar work. I also need to be reminded that I have a network of peers around the globe who are just as dedicated as I am. Consequently, it was extremely inspiring and motivating for me to come together with hundreds of other professionals at the Diversity Abroad Conference to discuss best practices and new strategies to enhance our efforts.
During the conference I was grateful for the multiple opportunities that were available for both speakers and participants to talk openly and honestly about diversity. I appreciated, in particular, the panelists and plenary speakers who moved beyond rhetoric to speak frankly about their own experiences and the vital importance of our work, as well as those who expressed impassioned calls to action. My race and ethnicity dialogue group offered simple, yet effective solutions to help better support students. The honest discussions that we had within our group will stick with me for a long time and I hope that future conferences will incorporate more of these intentional, interactive sessions. Perhaps most important for me were the informal conversations that I had with many of my fellow participants over meals or in transit to workshops; occasions that allowed us to speak authentically about the role and need for social justice in international education.
After the conference I was reminded of a phrase that Gretchen Cook-Anderson, Director of Diversity Initiatives at IES Abroad, had used during her workshop focused on “Ethics of Marketing to a Diverse Audience.” In the middle of her presentation, Gretchen spoke about the importance of “being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” the “uncomfortable” being the topics related to diversity and social identity that make us nervous or that we are unsure of how to approach or talk about openly. I find that the “uncomfortable” often has a direct correlation to our own areas of privilege. Returning home I was struck once again by how often in our professional and personal lives we don’t have the honest and straightforward discussions about diversity that I had during the conference. If we can’t have genuine conversations with our colleagues or others around us, how are we going to have them with our students who come from diverse backgrounds? We need to be prepared for the difficult conversations. We’re not always going to know the right thing to do or to say, but we can educate ourselves and we can reach out to others. As was mentioned several times during the conference, we should be knowledgeable about the additional resources and colleagues who can help provide empowering support to our students. After all, collaboration within (and between) our campuses and organizations is essential in creating truly successful diversity initiatives.
The Diversity Abroad Conference clarified and reinforced many of my ideas about how to incorporate social justice into study abroad. It also provided me with new, creative strategies and reminded me that we have an amazing network of people all around the world who are dedicated to furthering diversity in international education. We are much more effective in our efforts through working together and I thank Diversity Abroad for bringing us together. I look forward to future conferences and the stimulating conversations that will inevitably arise out of our mutual commitment to making these life-changing international experiences accessible to each and every young person, no matter their background.
Darielle Horsey is the Study Abroad Coordinator at Loyola Marymount University.
(Originally Posted in 2013)