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Discrimination Abroad

Friday, August 19, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Contributed by 2015-2016 Diversity Abroad Task Force on Race & Ethnicity: Lopez, I., McDermott, N., Horsey, D, Templeton, E., & Kurz, K.

While more students of color are enrolling at higher rates in U.S. colleges, their presence in study abroad programs has not, unfortunately, kept up with their gains in enrollment. Indeed, research has shown that students of color are sorely underrepresented in study abroad programs, with less than 10% attending a study abroad program (Sweeney, 2013). This is unfortunate as the National Survey of Student Engagement has noted that study abroad is an important high impact practice for students in higher education (Kuh, 2008). This is particularly the case for students of color who, when they do go abroad, experience a number of positive gains, and have a greater likelihood of graduating from college than their peers who did not go abroad (Malmgren & Galvin, 2008; Metzger, 2006).

Yet, although there are benefits of study abroad, this experience can also pose a number of difficulties for students of color. In particular, small qualitative studies, as well as anecdotal accounts, point to painful discriminatory experiences that students of color may have when they study abroad which can negatively impacted their cultural adjustment (Shelton, 2001; Talburt & Stewart, 1999). Thus, it is important to be aware of such experiences, especially as study abroad often occurs during adolescence and young adulthood, which are key times in identity development.

To help illustrate issues that may arise, consider the following scenarios based on the real experiences of students of color abroad:

Scenario 1:

Two African American women are studying in Austria on a faculty led program. Self-aware and preparing for their study abroad experience, they research their host country and the potential challenges and opportunities of being Black in Austria. Upon arrival to the host country, they experience aggressive comments and behaviors due to their race and nationality, such as being called "Black devils" by a bus driver. Additionally, they experience intrusive questioning about their work histories, studies and eligibility for the study abroad program by the spouse of a Faculty Advisor from a partner American university. They suspect this interaction is rooted in racism. 

However, when they share this information with the other students from their study abroad group, their peers ostracize them, avoid sitting with them at meals, and engage in other similar microaggressions. Further, when the students express their frustrations regarding these experiences, they encounter negative reactions from their classmates and faculty director. They are told that discussions about racism have no place in the group meetings and, to make matters worse, they are told that such conversations are, in fact, taking away from the experience others could have. They feel attacked for sharing, and feel typecast, blamed and excluded. They are baffled by the ease with which their peers engage in microaggressive behaviors and feel like it would be easier to handle these issues in the U.S. rather than in a place where they are all away from home.

How do the experiences of these two students impact their perceptions of study abroad? Of the host country? Do you think the students would encourage their peers to study abroad after experiencing what they did? How would can we help these two students? 

Scenario 2:

You are a faculty member who has been chosen to lead a semester long program in the Dominican Republic. You have led other cohorts of students before on various study abroad excursions and feel relatively comfortable with these experiences. However, this year, your cohort seems to be having more problems getting along than other groups have in previous years. In the Dominican Republic there has been a spate of hate crimes against Haitian refugees and arguments have arisen between your students surrounding these issues. Two students, one Latina (Sandra) and the other a Black female (Alicia), were once best friends in the U.S. but in the Dominican Republic their friendship appears to have been tested. 

One evening, during one of your group dinners, Alicia suddenly gets up from the table and runs out of the restaurant crying. Everyone at the table is stunned by this behavior but, after a brief awkward silence, some students begin to laugh. When you decide to go follow up on the student, Sandra tries to stop you and says, “Don’t bother, she’s just being a drama queen”. The other students now look at you.

What do you do? How do you address what occurred? Do you leave the table and go support Alicia? Do you address Sandra’s comments? How do you talk about race in a foreign setting?

What Else Does Discrimination Abroad Look Like?

These scenarios highlight some of the difficulties that students of color may have when they go abroad. In particular, within each scenario, we see racial tensions between peers as well as with members of the host culture.  What are the appropriate responses to such experiences?

To help students of color study abroad, we have created a list of experiences that some students of color may have when they travel. We believe that knowledge of these issues can help study abroad programs and faculty develop more culturally sensitive and effective programming to manage and deal with these issues before and when they arise.

1.  Being Identified First as an American.

“You may be black at home, but here you’re just an American”

Comment made to African American student in South Africa

When students of color study abroad they may first be identified as an American. But what does it mean for an ethnic or racial minority to first be identified as American – especially if, in the United States, this is not a term that they may use to identify themselves? For example, among some low-income students of color, being identified as American may mean being identified as someone who is wealthy. Hence, study abroad, therefore, is a prime time in a student’s life to not only learn about others but to also learn about themselves - which may entail learning about what it means to be identified first as an American (Dobly, 2004).

2.  Not Being Identified as an American.

“You are not American, but your friend, he is an American”. 

Comment made to Latina faculty member during a study abroad experience in China.

Conversely, some students of color (and apparently faculty) may be told that they “do not look American” because of preexisting racial notions of what Americans should look like. Thus, how does the student feel about this misidentification? Or more particularly, how does the student feel being denied this identity? How should we handle these experiences and in what ways can we equip our students to process these experiences?

3. Having Comments Made about one’s Appearance. 

Are you sure you’re not Roma? Because you look Roma to me” 

Comment made to mixed race student in Italy.

While many students may experience comments concerning their dress and/or appearance, for students of color, additionally comments may be made regarding their phenotype or racialized appearance. Additionally, given the current refugee crisis in Europe, minority students may find that they experience additional surveillance and questioning.  For example, it may not be unusual for Latino students who are studying in Germany to be misidentified as Syrian or African American students who are studying in Italy to be misidentified as Libyan. As such, students of color may be misidentified as belonging to other minority groups while abroad and may experience discrimination based on how much these groups are stigmatized.

4. Experiencing Fetishization and Objectification.

“…while we were touring, many of the patrons were asking to touch my hair, take pictures of me and with me, and openly stared as they walked past me. “ (Lowery - Wynn, 2015, p. 212).

Comment made to African American student in China.

In addition to receiving comments about their appearance, students of color may sometimes be made to feel as if their bodies are on display, as others may comment on or touch their body and hair. Students can experience fetishization and objectification by host nationals as well as by their peers that can manifest in unwanted sexual attention or harassment. 

5. Having Concerns Over Safety

With such increased attention, students can also report feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. These concerns can range from discomfort to fears of being physically assaulted, which can have a significant impact on a student’s perceived personal security and successful adaptation to the host culture. This is an especially salient point to also highlight with host families who will be in daily contact with students.  

6. Experiencing Language Discrimination.

“You Puerto Ricans just can’t really speak Spanish.”

Comment made to student while studying in Spain.

In addition to comments about appearance, students of color may also experience language discrimination. For example, while going abroad and mastering a new language can be difficult for any student, evidence suggests that others may endorse stereotyped notions regarding the intellectual abilities of racialized minorities which can hamper their language fluency (Willis & Delalue, 2016). Furthermore, even in instances when minorities may appear to look like host country nationals (e.g., an Asian American student studying in Asia, or an African American student studying in Africa), students of color report experiencing discrimination based on their accent or ability to speak the host country language. Indeed, in some instances students report being made to feel ashamed for not speaking the host language better – as when Chinese American students are told that they are not “Chinese enough” because they don’t speak enough Mandarin with their host families (Diversity Abroad Conference, 2016).

7. Experiencing Discrimination from Peers.

In addition to discriminatory experiences with the host culture, students of color can also experience discrimination from other Americans studying abroad (Willis & Delalue, 2016). While the research on within-group discrimination is limited, there is a belief that this type of discrimination is particularly toxic because it undermines a person’s sense of belonging to a group (Lopez et al., 2015). This is a particularly important to assess when American students go abroad as a group as negative group dynamics can hinder the study abroad experience (as in scenario 1 and 2).

Of course, not all students of color will have these experiences. Discriminatory experiences can vary depending on the racial and ethnic group of students, the saliency of that group membership to their identity, and the intersection of this identity with other markers, such as gender, class, sexual orientation and ability status. Furthermore, the experience of discrimination must be understood with reference to a site’s history of race and ethnic relations (Felix & Lopez, 2016). 

Given this complexity, it behooves us to inquire about the critical incidents that students of color may experience while abroad. Critical incidents are defined as events that have meaningful and important consequences on a student’s life and identity (Butterfield et al, 2009). Understanding such discriminatory experiences is important because current psychological literature has noted how racial discrimination, which manifest in daily hassles and everyday experiences to physical assault, can take a toll on one’s physical and mental health (Sue, 2007).

What Can You Do?

Given the above concerns, our Task Force has compiled the following list of recommendations for study abroad professionals and faculty (both domestic and international) who are managing and leading programs abroad.

For Study Abroad Professionals

1. Talk about it. Discrimination is one of the issues that students of color are often worried about prior to departure. Yet, these concerns are typically ignored or minimized. This is unfortunate as these experiences can and, most likely, will occur. Therefore, you must be proactive! Specifically, we must - 

  1. Address these issues in the materials you give to students and in pre-departure and on-site orientations.
  2. Devote sections of your study abroad website to highlighting and describing the experiences of students of color and connect students with support resources available both within our organizations or universities and the larger study abroad field (i.e. the Diversity Abroad website).
  3. Discuss these issues as you advise your students about different programs, addressing the benefits, as well as the difficulties, of studying abroad as a student of color. If you yourself do not feel fully prepared or comfortable with addressing diversity and discrimination topics directly with students, consider #2 and #3 below, and compile a list for yourself of colleagues who you can refer students to for more comprehensive information.  

2. Hold trainings for staff.  While more work can be done to help students prepare and process discriminatory experiences, we can also help with these issues by proactively making efforts to educate staff who will be supporting students of color. This not only includes program administrative staff but host families as well. Specifically - 

  1. Appoint Diversity Advisors as part of your regular staff. These are staff who have specifically been trained in these issues and that students should know they can approach with any concerns they are having.
  2. Conduct trainings for host families to discuss issues related to cultural sensitivity.
  3. Connect staff members with additional resources and trainings that are available through your campus or organization’s diversity offices and initiatives, as well as the Diversity Abroad Network.

3. Consider using peer-to-peer counselors. Students of color who go abroad can serve as great ambassadors for study abroad programs. Not only can they tell other students about their experiences and programs but they can also discuss ways that they coped while abroad. While supporting other students should not fall squarely on the shoulders of past students, they can be valuable resources for other students who are contemplating going abroad.

4. Provide opportunities for safe check-ins.  Check-ins are opportunities for programs to see how their students are doing. In addition to in-person check-ins, consider other opportunities for students to provide anonymous check-ins and procedures for reporting. Students may not always feel comfortable discussing experiences with discrimination but they should know that there is a specific place where they can report these issues and be free from retribution.

5. Gather data on critical incidents. When students return from their study abroad experiences there needs to be a systematic collection of critical incidents. Students should be able to provide their assessment of programs and specifically state whether they felt attended to and cared for in relation to experiences of discrimination.

6. Provide access to professional psychological resources.  At times students may need access to professional psychological resources. Each study abroad site should anticipate that this may be a need and be prepared to provide such services should the need arise. Such mental health professionals should be knowledgeable about the anxieties and fears that students of color may have when studying abroad.

For Faculty Leading Programs Abroad

Increasingly, faculty are called to take students on either long or short excursions abroad. This type of study abroad experience can be very powerful for students as they can learn about different cultures, people and ideas under the tutelage of a faculty instructor.  To help with these experiences, you should - 

1. Create a Faculty Field Experience Guidebook for your institution that presents common scenarios that instructors can face when going abroad.  

2. Offer trainings, conversations, roundtables and briefings for faculty on diversity and discrimination issues before they go abroad. Have past and new field instructors meet one another to discuss ways of coping and supporting students while abroad.

3. Have faculty Create an inclusive course syllabus that outlines how students are expected to treat one another and the consequences of discriminatory and disrespectful behavior. Have past field instructors share syllabi and resources used.

4. Consider sending two faculty members abroad for a course. Faculty teams can spell each other should a crisis arise and can use the opportunity to discuss group dynamics and issues of safety among the group. While some institutions hold that this expenditure is be cost prohibitive, having a second faculty member can help with programming should an emergency arise. Additionally. teaching abroad can be an isolating experience, and the benefits of providing a peer can help minimize faculty burnout. Further, having faculty or staff from different backgrounds can help increase the likelihood that students have at least one group leader that they feel they can go to with issues.

5. Recruit more diverse faculty. Institutions should put additional efforts towards recruiting minority professors to lead study abroad programs. Although this does not guarantee that students will feel comfortable approach these professors, having a professor of color can still serve as a powerful role model and recruiter for students of color – particularly if these students have never gone abroad before.

6. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Professors should proactively discuss issues of race, ethnicity, and discrimination when studying abroad. Being proactive models to students that this is an important topic to discuss, even if they still may be reluctant to approach you about it.

7. Educate and label. Educating students about microaggressions gives students a language to process their experiences (Sue et al 2007). Be proactive, anticipate issues and create space for discussions before, during and after the study abroad experience.

8. Get to know students beforehand. If possible, get to know the students before traveling abroad. This may entail meeting each student individually to ascertain any concerns and fears.

9. NOT be Colorblind. Approach discriminatory concerns with compassion and care rather than skepticism. Do not to ignore, minimize or dismiss concerns.

10. Pay attention to group dynamics. Be aware of scapegoating and bullying among students. Going abroad can be a scary and overwhelming experience for some students. Consequently, when groups of students go to a new country they have a tendency to cluster together (among themselves or with other similar Americans) in order to feel safe. However, as a result, some members may be excluded from such bonding. Pay attention to who gets excluded. Be aware of any implicit hierarchies that may be forming and be sure to stop these formations from solidifying when necessary. In particular, programs should invest in training group leaders in mediation and the use of de-escalation techniques. Such skills will be invaluable when dealing with these issues.

11. Institute the use of buddy/ally system for your students. Similar to the buddy system that may be used to ensure safety for students, have students act as support systems and allies for one another in the face of discriminatory experiences. For example, trainings can be instituted to show majority students how they can be an ally for minority students.

12. Collaborate with your institution’s counseling services to discuss ways of coping. If warranted, consider the use of remote counseling with your institution’s counseling center. Additionally, make sure you are aware of counseling services available within the study abroad site.

13. Collect critical incidents. Have a system in place for reporting all things big or small. This information can help an institution anticipate future problems and solutions. It also provides faculty program leaders with an opportunity to document their responses to events.

In sum, as more students of color enroll in study abroad programs, it is crucial that we make more concerted efforts to attend to their needs. When done with care and deliberation, students who are successfully mentored when they go abroad can return with an increased sense of empowerment, renewed focus, and a greater connection to heritage. Attending to their needs and concerns is thus time well spent.


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Diversity Abroad Conference Awards Ceremony (2016). Diversity Abroad Conference. Atlanta, Georgia.

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