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Multicultural Student Narratives from Abroad on Racial Identity and Social Justice Orientation

Monday, February 3, 2020  
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Multicultural Student Narratives from Abroad on Racial Identity and Social Justice Orientation: Implications for Practice

Breanne Tcheng, Ed.D. - University of California, Berkeley

This article shares excerpts from a qualitative study which sought to understand how a student’s racial identity shapes their experience in a K-12 international service-learning program in the Dominican Republic. More specifically, the study examined how the experience shaped students’ own ideas and actions around race, belonging, and difference (Tcheng, 2018). The student narratives and findings have implications that can be applied more broadly to assist advisors and educators as they prepare students of color for their time abroad. Recommendations include incorporating intentional discussions centered around race, power, and privilege into pre-departure workshops and orientations.

The research and findings highlighted here are centered around and drawn from the following students’ lived experiences and narratives:

Jake is a 19-year old, low-income student from Hayward, California. He is a confident and unapologetically bold Chicano male who identifies as LGBT. Jake’s personality flourishes when he speaks in Spanish, as he proudly proclaimed, “I don’t care. I’m doing me.” In doing so, he finds ways to push against traditionally masculine ideas of “machismo” and express himself through fashion. He is currently studying at CSU East Bay and working part-time.

Erika is an 18-year old, low-income student from Hayward, California. She is optimistic, curious, and grounded. As a Nigerian-American, Erika understands that at a time in her life when teenagers are trying to figure out who they are, she also must be cognizant of how she is perceived as a Black female. She explains, “[Being Black] just makes me really aware of people’s perceptions, and just how prejudices and every type of judgment [work], and how I’m supposed to navigate that, and still be myself.” Erika found that the trip experience allowed her to get to know others for who they truly were, which consequently allowed her to step into a space where she could also let her true self shine as well.

Leila is an 18-year old, upper-income art student from Oakland, California who is driven and confident. Growing up in a family of successful lawyers, she is no stranger to the extra effort that is required of a young, Black, female to make it in this world. “There’s not enough room to make mistakes,” she shares—partly because this is her reality, and partly because she has seen negative consequences play out in unjust ways for her friends. As a result, she was excited to share her unique experiences as a Black female participant, has joined a diversity task force at her school, and has decided to attend Spelman College, a prestigious women’s HBCU, in the fall.

For all three students, personal racial identity and the ability to access their community’s cultural wealth allowed them to draw deeper meaning from their experiences in the Dominican Republic in ways that were distinctly different than their White counterparts. When removed from the social and political context of the United States, these students could reflect on their own racial identity in relation to others in new ways.

Navigating multicultural contexts, however, was not a new experience for these students of color. Each student spoke about code switching, depending on if they were at school with friends, with family, or in a professional setting. This proved to be a source of cultural capital for many students to support their navigation of Dominican contexts abroad. Jake, in particular, felt like he could be more of his full self when he accessed his linguistic capital. “When I speak Spanish, I'm more confident. I'm more fun. I'm more friendly”; whereas he says he is much shyer when he speaks English. Jake spoke specifically to the advantage he felt when interacting with local Dominicans, and to the instantaneous connections he formed as a result. They would often spend time teaching each other different slang phrases, or making fun of how fast Jake could speak Spanish. “But at the end of the day we would just crack jokes,” he explained. “It felt like family again or like a good friend.”

Because of this cultural connection, Jake was also able to see himself in the local Dominican youth. This has had a profound impact on the way he now chooses to embrace and express his identity through fashion. Growing up, Jake shared that he often went to the rodeo with his family. Men dressed a certain way there, and were machismo or strong and masculine. Being in the DR surrounded by people that he identified with however, challenged his definition of Chicano machismo identity. He noted that “[Dominican males] are “not scared of fashion.” And “after I came back from the Dominican [Republic], I had actually just stopped caring. I really don’t care with the machismo look with baggy pants.” This experience and reflection – although seemingly minor – allowed Jake to feel a sense of empowerment and liberation through his own self-expression. It shifted his perspective on what masculinity looks like, and can be. The experience built Jake’s confidence in the way that he presents himself and in the way that he carries himself in the world.

Erika was surprised at how easily she could adapt to a foreign culture abroad and felt a strong sense of empowerment as a result. In particular, Erika shared her experience of visiting a batey – a Haitian settlement near the sugar cane fields. There, the students had an opportunity to share a meal with the community and learn about their lives, the challenges they face, and their dreams for the future. Although the entire day’s activities w open students’ eyes to some of the gross human rights and global injustices in the DR, this was not what was most profound for Erika. At the end of the day, she recalled, “We were walking, and it was just the whole group and this little girl she runs out from her house and she points at me. She's all like, "Mira la negra." [Look at the Black girl] …and she was just like a little Black girl, too. It just made me think of how [many] other service trips especially to Black communities globally [exist]… and how [often] people must never see themselves [in the volunteers]. Then I guess, when she saw me, she saw herself as well, which really touched me. I was all like, ‘Yeah, that's me."

This brief exchange was a powerful experience for Erika because it affirmed her racial identity. She went on to explain, “I was so surprised at how, especially coming from [the U.S.], and just really escaping the cultural paranoia that sometimes I would have, and how easily I was able to take things into a different context, and I didn't realize that that's also what I did.” This allowed Erika to feel more confident about moving away for college – and even beyond as she moves through life. “I liked how easily I was able to adapt,” she reflected proudly.

Leila had a similar experience identifying with the Haitians she met on her trip. “When I went to the batey and it was like people that looked like me, and I was understanding what they were saying and it was something that I could relate to. Like knowing you need something and you don't have it and you don't know where to get it. It's so hard.” Growing up in a family of successful lawyers, Leila knew she had to use her privilege to make a difference. She felt connected to their struggle, felt the weight of shared systemic oppression, and was inspired to resist by doing and achieving more.

Tired of having to explain her experiences to her White teachers at school, she is hopeful and has goals for her future. Thinking about her freshman year at Spelman, she proclaims, “I think that when you go to a college where they’ve been teaching black kids, somebody’s already paved the way for me. I just want to learn.” She attributes her success to her family as role models. “I’m lucky…I feel like I’m not always in a disadvantaged situation because of my race. I’ve seen people who look like me do well.” And there was no question in her mind that this was just the beginning. She plans to be a doctor: “I want to be a surgeon, so I
know that like my main goal is to return to the Dominican Republic, specifically San Juan, and do something with my profession there, because that was like a moment where I was like, ‘I can’t leave and not think about this anymore."

For these students, their relationships with local Dominican and Haitian youth engendered self-reflexivity in relation to their own race, belonging, and difference. These exchanges—and the subsequent sense of empowerment they felt—allowed them to develop deep ties to their roots, or feel more appreciative and connected to their American identity in ways that were consistent with the literature for heritage seeking students (Szekely, 1998; Tsantir, 2005). More specifically, every student spoke to moments of micro-exchange, mostly through unstructured dialogue with others, that impacted them most profoundly. In the Dominican Republic, discrimination is based heavily on skin tone and less on ethnic heritage, as in the United States. Thus, for these students of color, their complexion combined with their U.S. citizenship afforded them contextualized privilege that allowed for deeper reflections on the power that racial identity has in different parts of the world.

Implications for Practice
These narratives add complexity to our work with students of color, urging us to consider both the participant’s racial identity and the social context abroad in our approach to preparation and learning. As non-traditional learning abroad continues to be reinforced by White normative culture, discussions that both challenge these norms and center around the identities and needs of students of color are needed.

Further, in a global context, anti-Blackness is deeply rooted in the colonial legacies of race and White supremacy worldwide. It seems illogical, therefore, that any program designed to serve students of color abroad neglects to address and unpack Whiteness as a discourse of power, both locally and globally. Whether they acknowledge or are aware of it, students and their peers have a relationship to Whiteness and, by extension, to these systems of power. Global immersion programs need intentional dialogue that not only brings awareness to these oppressive powers but also addresses the role that race and U.S. politics play in creating global inequities. For U.S. students of color to fully actualize the benefits of an international immersion experience, preparatory workshops and discussions need to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy that promotes critical dialogue in which students can unpack and challenge the global dominance of Whiteness. This nuanced understanding and perspective can help students connect how they experience race in the U.S. with how they may experience race abroad, thereby developing a more complex understanding of their own racial identity, power, and privilege.

Szekely, B. B. (1998). Seeking heritage in study abroad. In T. Davis (Ed), Open Doors on the Web. New York: Institute of International Education. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from

Tsantir, S. B., &; Titus, B. J. (2005). Heritage seeking and education abroad: A case study. IIE Networker Magazine: Diversity in International Education.

Wing Tcheng, Breanne, "Building Bridges Across Difference Through International Summer Immersion Programs: A Narrative Inquiry in Racial Identity and Social Justice Orientation" (2018). Doctoral Dissertations. 479.