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From Underrepresentation to Parity Part I: The Unusual Case of STEM in Education Abroad

Tuesday, December 13, 2016  
Posted by: Lily Lopez-McGee
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By: Lily Lopez-McGee, Doctoral Candidate at George Mason University


The last two years of data from the IIE Open Doors Report have provided a glimpse into how education abroad has become more accessible for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In fact, the percentage of students majoring in STEM who go abroad is now on par with the percentage of students in higher education majoring in STEM (23%) (IIE, 2015; NCES, 2014). The combination of factors needed to make this happen has not been happenstance, and there are several lessons education abroad professionals and policy makers can take from this experience to support diversity efforts in education abroad more broadly.


National Policy and Innovation

The changing dynamic of national security has largely driven conversations to increase the U.S. capacity in cyber security and modernization of government systems to adapt more quickly to changes in technology and communication. The Obama administration in particular has pushed national efforts to fill these needs and has looked to higher education in particular to train more young professionals to enter into these in-demand careers. On numerous occasions the administration has sought to bolster programming, policy, and funding towards efforts that aim to increase the number of students studying STEM and innovative research and business endeavors that build U.S. competitiveness in the area. In his 2010 address to a group in North Carolina President Obama called on higher education to cultivate the next generation of scientists and engineers that will contribute to the national economy.


This is important for two reasons. Having the discourse around STEM in higher education happen at the national level followed by policy and funding ensures that institutions’ efforts are recognized as contributing to national interests. Similarly, the national discourse almost ensures that institutions, whether they have established reputations in STEM or are engaging in these efforts for the first time, will find a way to be connected to issues that are not only high priority but potential drivers for new programming and funding for their campuses.


Tech Industry and the Demand for STEM Professionals

The last decade has seen a boom in technology and innovation that has created a high demand for professionals with technical expertise. And while technical expertise is critical, it is increasingly important for tech professionals to be globally competent in order to work across borders and with colleagues around the world. Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are constantly trying to break into new global markets, initiate new projects abroad, and find ways to compete with other global and regional companies. U.S. students and recent graduates looking to break into the industry compete with international students studying in the U.S. who likely already have global competencies (e.g., language, cross-cultural experiences) and students graduating from top universities around the world who are similarly prepared with language and tech skills these companies are looking for. And whether perceived or not, many companies point to the limited supply of U.S. students with both the technical expertise and global competencies to fill their voracious demand for these kind of professionals.


Like with national policy efforts, the demand from the tech industry boom has made it more compelling for institutional leaders at universities and colleges to focus on building out STEM programming. Institutions and education abroad providers alike have expanded efforts to provide internationally focused programming that caters to STEM students (in and out of the U.S. and built out programming)


Student Identity and Discipline

In recent years, conversations around diversity and underrepresentation in education abroad have broadened beyond individual student identity to include discipline. Early on in discussions of diversity in higher education, diversity was often a proxy for gender (read: women), race and ethnicity, and disability. The last 20 years has seen a widening of the definition to include other aspects of student identity (e.g., socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion), academic discipline, political orientation, among others to capture characteristics that might otherwise influence one's worldview. Where diversity and inclusion efforts long stood to address issues of access based on social and institutional marginalization and underrepresentation based on identity, the contemporary trend has been to broaden representation beyond individual identity groups.


At the same time, increasing attention has been paid to the representation of men in higher education and education abroad. As educational opportunities have become accessible to women, women's participation in higher education and other educational programming has rapidly outpaced that of their male peers. As a result, scholars and higher education professionals have included male participation in the dialogue around underrepresentation in education abroad. It should not come as a surprise, then, that STEM departments, domains still dominated by men, would be viewed as clear spaces to reach male students. Understandably, many education abroad offices have initiated strategies to partner with STEM departments and faculty to craft curriculum integration plans, develop transfer agreements with third-party providers and foreign institutions, and create faculty led programs geared towards STEM students. The political will of institutions has supported the expanded focus on STEM students.


STEM programs, not so different than the companies mentioned earlier, have their own difficulties attracting diverse student populations. As a result, such initiatives may boost male participation in some areas of education abroad, but not necessarily for male students from underrepresented groups (e.g., ethnic, first-gen, with disabilities).


Structural Responses in Education Abroad to Increasing Access to STEM Students

The confluence of these three trends seems to have pushed higher education institutions to a point where the structural and systemic change needed to see meaningful progress towards making education abroad for STEM students accessible is possible. This isn't to say STEM majors are flocking to study abroad, but that the number of STEM majors going abroad is on par with the number of STEM majors in higher education speaks volumes to how increasing representation of one population of students is possible.


This article serves as a starting point for talking about STEM, underrepresentation, and study abroad. Part II of this series intends to address more directly the intersection of race and gender in education abroad and how these intersections play out in the conversation of underrepresentation. As a precursor, it's important to consider how race and gender have interacted with the larger political will to push for accessibility to education abroad for STEM students. Questions such as the following are helpful in framing Part II in this series.

  • How might the expanding definition of diversity impact previous efforts to make study abroad accessible to traditionally underserved student populations (racial and ethnic minority students, students with disabilities)?

  • How might longstanding issues of racism and sexism in higher education influence, if at all, the likely success of boosting STEM participation in education abroad?

  • Will the national dialogue around access to higher education for racial minorities and the strong interest from private industry to diversify their workforce translate to significant movement towards parity in education abroad for racial and ethnic minority students?

Lily Lopez-McGee is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University and co-chairs the Global Access Pipeline, a consortium of organizations dedicated to strengthening the pipeline of underrepresented minorities in international affairs.