Few students of color study abroad

Of nearly 10,000 students surveyed, less than a quarter were of color.

Raya Zimmerman

Hundreds of University of Minnesota students are in the midst of putting together applications with the looming April 1 deadline for many fall semester study abroad programs.

The vast majority of these students will likely be white. Between 2004 and 2009, 9,951 study abroad undergraduate and graduate students provided information to a University questionnaire regarding ethnicity âÄî and 86 percent were white.

White students make up 69 percent of the total student population on the UniversityâÄôs Twin Cities campus.

That means that although students of color account for about 30 percent of graduate and undergraduate students, they make up only 14 percent of University students studying abroad.

The Multicultural Study Abroad Group, an outgrowth of the Learning Abroad Center, hones in on this exact issue. Comprised of University staff, faculty and advisers, the group encourages, supports and provides resources for students of color to study abroad.

Family is the primary factor when students of color decide whether to go abroad, said Ellen Sunshine, a senior academic adviser in the College of Liberal Arts who also works with MSAG.

She said students who come from nonwhite backgrounds may have different or more responsibilities than their white peers, such as helping to pay their familiesâÄô mortgages or taking care of their siblings. Also, in some cultures, women are more protected.

Mariam Mahmood, a political science junior, was born in Saudi Arabia and acquired Indian citizenship in her youth. She said Indian girls can be more sheltered than American girls because their families, religions and upbringings vary.

Her sister Maher Mahmood, a Post-Secondary Enrollment Options student at the University, said that at this point their family wouldnâÄôt feel comfortable with them studying abroad.

Sunshine said MSAG trains faculty and staff to talk to students of color to overcome any barriers they may face with their family or with going abroad.

Shuji Asai, chairman of MSAG, said the group also coaches students to talk to their family members and brainstorm ways to make the programs more affordable and accessible, as cost also plays a prominent role in determining studentsâÄô decisions.

Some solutions theyâÄôve proposed involve using financial aid for the program and encouraging students to embark on a shorter session âÄî like a May term âÄî rather than a full semester.

MSAG also strives to challenge the students.

âÄúLeaving this country would help them look at their identity in a global way,âÄù Asai said.

Change in identity

Rickey Hall, assistant vice president at the Office for Equity and Diversity, said societyâÄôs racial constructions drastically change when traveling between different countries. He said someone who is considered to be of a certain race in the U.S. could be categorized completely differently elsewhere.

Global studies senior Leila Labyad identifies herself as âÄúmixedâÄù in the U.S. since her father is from North Africa and her mother is from Wisconsin.

Labyad said her racial identity here is more subjective than in Senegal, where she studied abroad during the 2009-10 school year. While in Senegal, she âÄúbecame more white,âÄù although she was still placed in both the racial categories of black, or âÄúnaar,âÄù and white, or âÄútoubab.âÄù

âÄúPeople [in the U.S.] would consider me really ethnic, like I was exotic,âÄù Labyad said. âÄúBut then people in Senegal, they said, âÄòNo, youâÄôre white!âÄôâÄù

Reasons and motivation

Mariam said the appeal of studying abroad is different for students who are originally from countries outside the U.S.

She said she experienced the same culture shock that students experience when they study abroad, except she was 9 years old.

âÄúSome [students of color] are from a different country already, so they feel they donâÄôt need to explore that aspect because they already have their own culture and their own ethnicity,âÄù Mahmood said. âÄúIt has to do with cultural norm.âÄù

Mahmood said she has already, in a sense, done her studying abroad.

Francie Odozi, a nursing junior and a native of Nigeria, said if students come to the University to study, they want to stay. She said she came here because back home she canâÄôt work until she has at least a degree.

âÄúFor an American to go someplace else, itâÄôs to learn about another culture rather than for education and job opportunities,âÄù Odozi said.

Only 2 percent of black or African-American students studied abroad between 2004 and 2009, according to the questionnaire.

Asai said MSAG is making progress but they arenâÄôt satisfied. The questionnaire shows only a slight increase in students of color studying abroad between 2004 and 2009.

âÄúWe have to look at this holistically,âÄù Asai said. âÄúAdvisers and faculty have to make conscientious efforts to address these issues, one student at a time.âÄù