News & Press: Articles

Beyond the Rhetoric: What’s Required for Systemic Change?

Friday, October 18, 2019  
Share |

By: Erica Ledesma - Diversity Abroad


For institutions serious about examining campus climate, listening to student concerns, and mobilizing lasting change, what exactly is needed? How do we go beyond the rhetoric around diversity & inclusion and get to the heart of the very real issues that afflict our institutions? As global educators, what is our role in ensuring that we do our part to create a welcoming climate for students from all backgrounds? We have come along way in articulating the benefit of global experiences. For many of us, the battle is no longer limited to convincing administrators that global competencies are key to success in the uber-competitive 21st century job market. This campaign has produced champions and the statistics demonstrate that participation is on the increase. So, if we believe that thoughtful cross-cultural experiences are an integral aspect of a high-quality education, then we have an obligation to ensure that all students have equitable access to global experiences and are provided with inclusive support from pre-departure through returning home.

Instead of envisioning efforts to improve access and foster inclusive support in global education as yet another initiative, let’s consider aspects of a systemic approach. Mobilizing change from the inside out requires dedication, transparency, and much more. By no means a panacea, here are five things that global educators can implement from the ground up.

1) Honesty and Humility

When we look at the Open Doors Data for study abroad participation, we need to be honest about the disparities. Women are taking advantage of these opportunities at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts. Why? Statistics for race and ethnicity further demonstrate the pervasive nature of the problem. In 2013/2014, non-white students constituted only 25% of the 304,467 students who received credit for study abroad. Now, there are many reasons why historically underrepresented student populations may choose not to study abroad. Whether it’s our outreach practices, staff demographics, financial aid policies -- to name only a few -- it is imperative that we recognize that institutional practices and policies have a role in influencing a student’s decision to go abroad or not. What efforts are being undertaken to assess our office’s practices and policies? When results are received -- even if they aren’t glowing -- can we set our perceptions aside, engage honestly with the feedback, and develop a meaningful plan to move forward? For more information regarding guidelines for inclusive excellence and assessing progress, check out Diversity Abroad’s Access, Inclusion, and Diversity (AID) Roadmap.

2) Differentiate Between Inclusion & Diversity

There is an important distinction to be made between diversity and inclusion. Often times we focus our energy on diversity without fully addressing inclusion. While it is important to dedicate energy and resources to increasing access to education abroad for historically underrepresented students (diversity), ensuring that students who choose to participate receive equitable support (inclusion) is key to systemic change. Incorporating conversations about health and safety abroad that address considerations for LGBTQ students, students of color, and various religious identities in countries throughout the world may provide a starting point but is certainly not sufficient. Inclusion is more than numbers on a page, it must be at the core of our institutions: “each person and culture that composes the institution’s demographic makeup should be able to see themselves prominently reflected in the fabric of the institution in meaningful ways” (Desegregation Not Same as Diversity and Inclusion, Diverse Issues in Higher Education). Education Abroad Offices may want to reflect on the following questions. Who should be involved in discussions around identity abroad? Can we leverage expertise and relational capital of other campus offices, such as Multicultural Student Life? Is the advising staff trained and comfortable engaging in discussions around identity?

3) Acknowledge the Past

On campuses across the country, protests are illuminating student concerns, especially in regards to race. With the inception of social movements like Black Lives Matter, among others, students are voicing dissatisfaction with the campus climate and treatment of students of color and other marginalized groups. While it’s tempting for institutions to be defensive, this moment in history provides us with an opportunity to critically examine our policies and practices. Part of understanding what’s happening today on our campuses requires acknowledging the complicated history of race relations in the United States, and higher education is no exception:

As we witness racial strife on our campuses, we might begin to acknowledge how the academy’s legacy of bias continues to reverberate. Only then can we hope to honestly face America’s longtime resistance to racial reality and equality, and understand the basis of lingering attitudes today (Academe Must Confront its Racist Past, Chronicle of Higher Education).

Even for the most well-intentioned and educated among us, unconscious bias is a reality that impacts our everyday interactions. Furthermore, our work is carried out within larger systems such as offices, institutions, communities, etc, that contribute to our perceptions of how things “should” be done. As global educators, what steps are we taking to critically examine our own perceptions and perspectives to identify areas of bias? How might the campus climate shift if our office made this is a priority? How is institutional and systemic bias addressed honestly and openly in our work (see #1)?

4) Acknowledge the Present

Many marginalized young people, including students of color, have developed their own support networks as a means of thriving on-campus despite our institutional failings. As global educators, understanding the specific experiences and concerns of these students will lay the groundwork for developing more inclusive support structures. In his recent piece Black Lives Matter Abroad, Dr. Aaron Bruce provides insight on his experience working with African American male students in global education. Among other recommendations, Dr. Bruce encourages Education Abroad Offices to hire more black males and incorporate a cohort model that maintains a student’s support network when developing new international programs. How are we educating ourselves to understand the unique concerns for all student groups, such as LGBTQI+ identifying students and DACA-mented students, to name only a few? How might the present political climate, national discourse, and other factors impact these students within the context of our global education outreach and programming options?

5) Develop a Vision for the Future

In our efforts to move beyond the status quo, let’s consider the future of global education as more historically underrepresented student groups increasingly choose to participate in global opportunities. Thoughtfully designed international experiences provide unique spaces to encourage cross-cultural understanding. Similar to college admission discussions, however, that challenge the notion that a more diverse student body will automatically result in increased intercultural learning (see Admissions is Just Part of the Diversity Puzzle, Chronicle of Higher Education), it is incumbent upon global educators to reimagine an off-campus learning environment that would support mutual understanding and collaboration among diverse learners. What conversations can we incorporate into pre-departure discussions with students that would encourage learning and cooperation among diverse cohorts? How can these conversations continue upon return to campus? How are we preparing faculty to facilitate positive group dynamics and collaborative learning within the cohort? What best practices already exist as models for inclusive program design?


Global educators can implement meaningful change on our campuses to promote a positive climate for all students. While the five principles mentioned above only scratch the surface, a systemic approach is required if we truly want to move beyond the rhetoric.