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Achieving Great Study Abroad Diversity Should Begin in Human Resources

Friday, October 18, 2019  
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Contributed by: Adam Freed, University Relations Manager, CISabroad

It is well-documented that most participants in U.S. outbound study abroad programs are white, female, or both. Open Doors data shows that for over a decade, the representation of female students in these programs hovered around 65%, and in the same period, white students accounted for an average of 78% of all outbound study abroad participants (Student Profile, 2017). This “demographic gap” has seen increasing interest from researchers and professionals over the past decade. Universities and international education organizations have devoted significant resources into addressing some of the theorized causes of the “demographic gap” and have found some success. However, there is another clear issue within international education, one that influences participant diversity and if not addressed may slow the progress of diversity initiatives: The same “demographic gap” that is seen in participants is also present among the professionals in the field. Until we take a hard look in the mirror and address our own failings when it comes to diversity, we will do our students a disservice in advocating for their diversification. 

First, it is important to understand where we stand today in terms of how the field of international education understands the “demographic gap”. Across all of the research that has been done thus far relating to student diversity in outbound study abroad, there are a number of common factors that are theorized to impact a students’ decision to participate or not participate in study abroad programs. Some of the most frequently cited factors are: overall student demographics among U.S. undergraduates (Terra Dotta, 2015), course offerings and applicability to graduation requirements (Barclay Hamir, 2011), financial aid availability (Bandyopadhyay, 2015), student predisposition/motivation (Salisbury, et al., 2008, Li, 2013), expectations/perceptions from students and families (McClure, et al., 2010), and marketing strategies (LaCount, 2016).

Professionals looking to address diversity among participants may find it daunting to know where to direct resources in order to have the biggest impact. To more clearly understand where an initiative can be most effective, it is useful to categorize these theorized factors. All of these factors have a subject, which is to say that each places the emphasis on one particular entity. In this case, these two possible entities are the student (the individual participant) and the system (the study abroad office or provider), so every factor is either student-centric or system-centric. Each factor can be more distinctly categorized by whether it comes from inside the entity (internal) or from outside (external). For example, financial aid is categorized as external student-centric because the availability of financial aid is largely dependent on the student but is controlled by an outside force (the university). The factors previously mentioned and others are categorized in the chart below for reference.


Factors Impacting Students’ Study Abroad Participation Decision 

Internal Student-centric External Student-centric
Predisposition to study abroad
Career aspirations/personal motivation
Perceptions of study abroad as a possibility
Applicability to graduation requirements
Financial aid/other costs
Cultural/familial expectations
Internal System-centric External System-centric
Program duration
Course offerings
The X-Factor
U.S. undergraduate demographics
Political climate



The X-Factor: Diversity Among Professionals
The chart above is useful for anyone working towards greater diversity in outbound study abroad because it shows where professionals can have an impact and what factors may be out of their hands. However, there is a major gap in the research on one factor that has the widest-ranging impact across multiple other factors: international educators themselves. Using the categorization above, this internal system-centric factor has arguably the widest reach of all. From program development to marketing, international education professionals have an incredible influence over the entire study abroad process. 

For this article, I examined eight higher education institutions and eight study abroad provider organizations regarding the demographic makeup of their staff based on the staff directory pages on their public websites. On average, white women represented 67.5% of staff, with white representation overall averaged 84.9%. When compared to the Open Doors data on demographics of outbound students, it is hard not to note a similarity. If the field sees the “demographic gap” among students to be cause for widespread action, shouldn’t it also
approach its internal “demographic gap” with the same gravity?

Until now, diversity initiatives have largely focused on what is being done. From scholarships to new program models to changing advising/marketing practices, the field has been addressing the “demographic gap” through changing methods. The data suggests that another pertinent and effective area to address is who is directing the efforts, and that in addition to changing the methods, it is also changing the people doing the work that will bring about a lasting impact.

Consider the example of a study abroad office advising staff. If, in the case of many offices, the advisors are all white, a student from a racial minority may find it difficult to resonate with the advisor’s excitement about their own experiences abroad. The sharing of the advisor’s experience may not be useful in drawing that minority student in, as it is a near certainty that the student’s experience will be different because of racial bias or outright racism from which the white advisor may have been entirely shielded. Likewise, the white advisor may not have a good answer to a question like “What can I expect as a black woman abroad?”. Of course, there are myriad resources available online and through organizations like Diversity Abroad, but the best resource is the one that is already in the office and available immediately.

Study abroad staff may also unconsciously influence programs and student participation. If one majority group has control over the design, development, recruitment/marketing, and implementation of programs, it is not unreasonable to suggest that there may be some unintended biases toward members of that same majority group. At the very least, having a field that is visibly dominated by one demographic assuredly feeds the perception that study abroad is for one type of student.


What Can We Do?
The best news is that there are some relatively easy ways to reverse the field’s “demographic gap”. First, we need to elevate diverse professionals in the field and provide them opportunities to share their knowledge and unique perspectives. Secondly, we need to hire diverse staff to fill our study abroad offices at all levels. It isn’t enough to simply organize an annual diversity training for an all-white staff; we need to intentionally change the demographic makeup of our offices. Diversity trainings are important and should not be minimized, but no amount of training can replace the value of multiple perspectives and experiences being present daily.

There will undoubtedly be reasons cited for why the field looks the way that it does, just as there are reasons given for why outbound programs lack diverse groups of participants. Over time, it’s possible that some of these trends will reverse as more and more non-white undergraduates enter our offices, but until then, how many students will be left without the chance to study abroad? Either the field is committed to diversity or it isn’t. If we are, then we must look in the mirror and admit our own failings if we are to make any sort of an impact at all.


Bandyopadhyay, S., & Bandyopadhyay, K. (n.d.). Factors Influencing Student Participation In College Study Abroad Programs. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from 

Hamir, H. B. (2011). Go Abroad and Graduate On-Time: Study Abroad Participation, Degree Completion, and Time-to-Degree. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from Go Abroad and Graduate On-Time: Study Abroad Participation, Degree Completion, and Time-to-Degree

LaCount, E. (2016, April). Gender Gap in Studying Abroad. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from, Emily (The Gender Gap in Study Abroad)Capstone2016.pdf?sequence=1 

Li, M., Olson, J., & Frieze, I. (2013). Students’ Study Abroad Plans: The Influence of Motivational and Personality Factors. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from Students’ Study Abroad Plans: the Influence of Motivational and Personality Factors 

McClure, K. R., Szelényi, K., Niehaus, E., Anderson, A., & Reed, J. (2010). “We Just Don’t Have the Possibility Yet”: U.S. Latina/o Narratives on Study Abroad. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from 

Salisbury, M. H. (2008, June 20). Going Global: Understanding the Choice Process of the Intent to Study Abroad. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from Going Global: Understanding the Choice Process of the Intent to Study Abroad Student Profile. (n.d.). Retrieved August 5, 2018, from 

Tackling the Gender Gap in Study Abroad. (2015, March). Retrieved August 5, 2018, from