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Asian American Students in Study Abroad: Resources, Representation, and Awareness

Friday, July 5, 2019  
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Contributed by 2018-2019 Race and Ethnicity Task Force members:
Charles Lu – University of California San Diego
Greg Rafal – University of Maryland
Kandice Rose – IES Abroad



Diversity Abroad recently published a literature review about Asian American students in global education.  The review highlighted a dearth of scholarship and work focused on this topic.  As such, this blog post sought to start the conversation regarding Asian American students and study abroad.  We interviewed eight different students of Asian heritage who recently returned from their overseas experiences (seven  Americans and one non-U.S.-born student, though a few students have lived outside of the United States for extended periods of time).  Specifically, we wanted to better understand the resources they used to study abroad, their racialized experiences while abroad, and their perceptions of how study abroad impacted them.



Two major themes emerged when we spoke to students about the resources they were searching for.  Students utilized internet resources and in-person resources, with in-person resources being defined in three separate categories: study abroad advisor, friends, and recent alumni.  When asked about which internet resources they leveraged, the vast majority of students stated that they did not seek out information based on their race or ethnicity before studying abroad.  Instead, their primary concerns were to seek out both general and racially-based financial aid resources.  A couple of students also searched for religious information, and one student searched for information regarding what life would be like as an international student but did not necessarily do so in regards to her race.  One student did research racial/ethnicity-based information and was able to find that information available in Cantonese because she was going to Hong Kong. 

80% of the students interviewed utilized in-person resources at some point, as they prepared to study abroad.  Only about half of the students asked their advisors for resources.  The students who did utilize their study abroad office did not approach their advisors with racially/ethnically-based questions because they figured that advisors would not be able to offer them any information that wasn’t already on the website or presented in other resources.  Instead, they approached their advisors with questions about financial aid.  50% of the students also spoke with friends about what their experiences may be like.  Though sometimes friends were not the same ethnicity or nationality, all of them identified a similar race.  Utilizing friendships provided the most positive response from the students interviewed.  “It definitely made me more comfortable with the whole experience,” stated Aleena Khan (IES Abroad Paris BIA).  Only about 20% of students spoke to recent alumni of their chosen programs.  Of the students who did utilize an on-campus ambassador, none of them were able to connect with someone who identified as the same race, instead, they connected with recent alumni on the basis of major and host country. 



One prevalent theme from the student interviews was the lack of Asian representation in study abroad, U.S. higher education, and general U.S. culture.  One student mentioned, “it’s easy to overlook an entire group of people when nothing is mentioned about them,” referring to the lack of representation at their institution (Savannah Kan, University of Oregon).  Many students feel Asian culture is recognized by their peers and by their institutions but only at surface level.  For example, when students refer to anyone or anything as “Asian” they do not acknowledge the distinct cultures within the Asian community.  In this way, students from Asian backgrounds are put in a broad box leading to profiling and stereotypes.  Non-Asian students are not seeing the appropriate level of Asian American representation at their institutions and part of that is attributed to a lack of representation in U.S. culture and community leadership.  One student referenced the lack of Asian Americans in the faculty or senior leadership while others touched on the lack of Asian American politicians, actors, and pop stars.
There is no changing cultural representation overnight but there are ways to move the needle on this necessary social change.  One student cited heritage celebration weeks at their institution; a South Asian heritage week as well as an East Asian/Pacific Islander heritage week recognizes multiple facets of Asian culture and is a way to educate the community.  Students are not always aware of cultural diversity and need the opportunity and space for this type of cultural training. Another student mentioned the need for self-advocacy from the Asian community— more Asian and Asian American students speaking out and voicing their concerns.


When asked about how self-aware they were of their racial/ethnic identities abroad, two distinct themes emerged: classroom/cohort dynamics and the local population.  Students spoke of how other students were not as culturally sensitive as they would have expected, or about how they were expected to know what was going on in Asian countries just because they identified as Asian-American.  This did not only happen in class but also when encountering the local population.  However, not all experiences had students feeling as if they did not fit because they racially stood out, sometimes it was celebrated. “A lot of people would talk about Bollywood, which is not a topic that I bring up often or think there’s an interest in, so I was surprised when a lot of Chileans were aware of Indian culture and would talk about how very vibrant and colorful India is” (Jaagrit).  Heritage students, like Sean Tang (IES Abroad Shanghai), were able to identify as either “international” or “Chinese” based on with whom he was interacting.  Sean was born in China and grew up there before moving to the U.S.  “If I was walking with my American friends, I identified as an international person.  But, if I was by myself I identified as Chinese and was fine.  I switched fairly often based off of what situation and where I was and who I was with.  I was really comfortable with that.”


The interviews provide some anecdotal evidence that resources, representation, and awareness are three overarching themes worth addressing when it comes to supporting Asian American students in study abroad.  In regards to resources, students might be more likely to seek out information on finances and general cultural differences rather than resources related to their racial identity.  Perhaps students do not think these types of resources are available, or maybe these are not challenges students are anticipating.  Whatever the reason, practitioners and advisors can incorporate more reflection around racial and ethnic identity into advising.  

One possible solution is for practitioners and advisors to cultivate recent alumni of Asian descent to serve as ambassadors or study abroad peers to help prospective students.  In addition, these interviews supported the need for more representation for Asian American communities in higher education as well as increased awareness around who is Asian American and what that really means.  This means an acknowledgment of the diversity within the Asian community and surface level understandings of Asian identity.  A task easier said than done.