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Literature on Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Study Abroad: Where Do We Stand?

Monday, August 22, 2016  
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By: Lily Lopez-McGee 

In a world of instant news, hashtags, and trending themes, it often seems as though scholarly research is slow to catch up. Over the course of the last ten years the conversation around diversity issues in education abroad has seemingly expanded rapidly with the growth of events and online resources dedicated to discussing topics related to access to and diversity in education abroad. The platform where this is published is one of the clearest examples of national resources dedicated to discussing timely and relevant issues of diversity and inclusion in international education. Still, the body of empirical research and scholarly publications that explore good practices in access, inclusion, and diversity in education abroad leaves much to be desired.

So, how far has the field come in terms of scholarship focused on such topics? Not as far as many international education professionals would hope, but further along than it ever has been. While there are numerous ways to describe the existing literature focused on issues of diversity and inclusion in education abroad, there are a few trends that offer a glimpse of existing scholarly resources and the gaps that future scholars should consider addressing.

Literature is Sparse

Research and scholarship around topics related to education abroad have increased dramatically over the course of the last 15 years. Scholars have sought to differentiate how education abroad programs are classified (Engle & Engle, 2003), better understand what and how students are learning during their time abroad (Brewer Vande Berg et al., 2012), and developed tools that support student learning while abroad. Even with these strides, there are few publications that center on diversity and inclusion efforts. This is not to say that scholars haven’t researched topics of diversity and inclusion at all. There are indeed many who have looked at issues of access for specific student populations and student experiences based on identity. However, compared to the increases in research and scholarship focused on education abroad more broadly, the number of studies looking at issues of access, diversity, and inclusion are far fewer. This is slowly changing - the next issue of Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad is slated to focus on religion in study abroad - the availability of peer-reviewed scholarly publications on these topics is limited.

Most Studies are Small Scale

In addition to the limited availability of research, the studies that explore diversity and accessibility are often smaller in scale. Many of the published pieces focus on small groups of students or have a limited number of participants. The methodology used is often qualitative in nature as well, limiting the generalizability and scalability of the interventions used in the studies. To be clear, the field needs these qualitative studies to shed light on the experiences of students and get at the nuances that the environment, program structure, and other factors have on students. The point here is to note that there are few large-scale quantitative studies that explore larger trends in student outcomes and participation to complement the rich narratives found in existing materials.

Some may also suggest that several larger studies have been done that pick apart differences in outcomes and learning based on identity. While some larger studies have described differences in outcomes based on student identity, few have sought to explore issues of diversity and inclusion (e.g., where are racial/ethnic minority students going, are there differences in program choice based on student demographics, are there differences in learning outcomes for underrepresented students based on program type) as the primary focus of the study. Including student demographics in studies focused on education abroad more generally is absolutely important; it is critical to also consider the issues separately to draw specific attention to trends that may not be obvious by asking broader questions.

There is More Information on Accessibility than Inclusion

The education abroad experience is frequently described as taking place in three unique phases: before, during, and after. The literature that does speak to diversity and inclusion specifically more often than not looks at the point of access, that is, before students go abroad. We can say with a level of certainty that the decision making process and intent to study abroad differ based on students’ identity based on racial/ethnic background, gender, socioeconomic status, and disability. Studies, quantitative and qualitative, at this phase in the education abroad experience are relatively accessible (though there is always room for more!). As for what happens after students go abroad and when they return? There is far less information available on these phases.

An additional point to consider is that intersectionality - the experiences of students based on multiple components of their identities (e.g., ethnic, gender, socioeconomic) - is rarely discussed in education abroad literature, and to a certain extent in the discourse writ large in the field (Willis, 2015 is a good example of recent work in this area). For example, the literature on the experiences of Black/African American students in education abroad has increased greatly in the last five years. The studies that explore intragroup differences of Black/African American students is much harder to come by (e.g., do Black/African American women have different experiences that their male peers, are there differences in participation rates of Black/African American students based on socioeconomic status).

We know little about differentiated outcomes of students from diverse backgrounds.

Much of what we know about what students learn from being abroad is general. This is problematic because the student profile of education abroad participants is still predominantly female, white, and higher income students. It is inconclusive that all students are learning equally. While it is important to consider general themes and trends, doing so may not reveal differences between students and program types. It is not enough to ask questions that look at learning outcomes and on-the-ground experiences of education abroad participants to understand potential differences based on students’ identities. Research is guided by specific questions, and if the questions do not consider questions based on identity and inclusion those potential findings will not reveal themselves in the data on their own.

One example of this is the case of gender differences in the education abroad experience. Until recently, there wasn't much that we knew even across gender distinctions. It was not until 2009 when Vande Berg and his colleagues showed that women may be gaining intercultural competencies more and more quickly than their male peers that the gap in what we know about how female and male students learn became clear.

Research takes time and sometimes the empirical support we need for topics related to contemporary issues is not immediately available. We know more today than we did yesterday about the education abroad experience, but there is much work to be done.


Engle, L., & Engle, J. (2003). Study abroad levels: Toward a classification of program types. Frontiers: The interdisciplinary journal of study abroad, 9(1), 1-20.

Willis, T. Y. (2015). “And still we rise”: Microagressions and intersectionality in the study abroad experiences of Black women. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 26, 209–230.

Vande Berg, M., Connor-Linton, J., & Paige, R. M. (2009). The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for student learning abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 18, 1-75.

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (Eds.). (2012). Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.