Stephanie Alexander once asked a cousin what, if anything, she would change about her college experience.
The answer was simple: Study abroad.
Alexander took that advice to heart.
The 22-year-old political science major at Clark Atlanta University recently returned from several months at South Bank University in London as part of a study-abroad program. Now she is making plans to return to Europe, this time to France where she hopes to attend school and study public policy and international law.
“It was a culture shock, coming from an HBCU (historically black college or university) environment to an international, predominantly white institution,” she said. “I had to adapt to being around people from all over the world: Germany, China and different countries in Africa. It gives you a different world view.”
That’s a view that educators and officials at study-abroad programs hope will spread among more students from historically black colleges and universities.
Each year more than 300,000 students participate in study-abroad programs. Of those, 5.3 percent are African-American, according to the Institute of International Education Open Doors Report. Of those African-Americans, fewer still are enrolled in HBCUs, experts say.
Earlier this year, Spelman College and SIT Study Abroad hosted a summit that examined ways to expand international study programs for students at HBCUs. Students from more than two dozen HBCUs attended the summit.
“It’s a serious issue that African-American students are not studying abroad in the same proportion as they are represented in higher education in general,” said Laurie Black, dean for external relations and strategic enrollment management at SIT Study Abroad and SIT Graduate Institute. “Something has to be done to change that. The skills that are gained through study abroad can no longer been seen as extras or luxuries but as one of the foundations of education. It has to be supported at the top and through the budgeting process.”
African-American students who study abroad are 13 percent more likely to graduate from college in four years and have higher GPAs than other students who don’t.
And, once they graduate, it can open more doors.
Eighty-two percent of foreign service officers are white compared with 5.4 percent, who are African American, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. Imagine, Black said, how that might change if more African-Americans were exposed to international communities and established lasting relationships.
Indeed, the short- and long-term value can’t be understated, said Gretchen Cook-Anderson, director of diversity recruiting and advising for Chicago-based IES Abroad, a nonprofit provider of study-abroad programs for U.S. undergraduates. Participation in such programs, no doubt, “increases their marketability in an increasingly global workplace … It’s absolutely essential that there be more students from HBCUs who have those opportunities made available and accessible to them.” said Cook-Anderson, a graduate of Spelman.
Her organization has worked with HBCUs since 1958 and now works with a consortium of nine HBCUs and one at-large member. “For us, this is not a new priority.” she said. IES recently unveiled a new initiative called “12 for 12 for 12 Programs”, which offers 12-week programs abroad, offering 12 academic credits for $12,000. The plan is to make study abroad more affordable, she said.
She has witnessed a slow rise in the number of students coming from HBCUs, but such efforts do not come without challenges.
She calls them the four Fs: funding, friends and family, fear and faculty. Although scholarships are available, some students feel they won’t be able to afford study abroad; others have not traveled abroad nor had relatives do so, and worry about being overwhelmed; and faculty and administrators must buy into the value of study abroad.
Dimeji Togunde, an associate provost for global education and professor of international studies at Spelman, agreed. He said there is that tension between the need to study abroad and having a flexible curriculum.”
“Through study abroad, students are able to gain a better understanding of their country, their identity, and their purpose and meaning of life,” he said. “Some students have said that study abroad has enhanced their level of maturity and independence.”
Although Spelman has been deliberate in promoting study abroad, overall the low participation among HBCUs is attributed to cost, culture, curriculum and having champions on campus.
Spelman, he said, established a $17 million endowment and have pursued aggressive fund raising activities to provide scholarships to students.
In terms of curriculum, some schedules may not be flexible enough to accommodate travel abroad. Spelman developed a two-week, short term study abroad program that takes place in May to allow some students the opportunity to work and do their internship in the summer
At Spelman College, in the 2010-11 academic year, fewer than 100 Spelman students participated in study abroad programs. In the 2012-13 year, that rose to 196 and in the 2014-15 academic years, it reached 324 students.
Junior Kailyn Brooks of Cleveland, Ohio is among them.
The international studies major is currently in Chile. She’s traveled to Spain and other countries while on spring break.
Study abroad seemed a natural. “I hope to get more of a global perspective,” she said of the program, where she will study public health and community engagement.
When Brooks entered the program, she was one of two black students and the only one in the program from an HBCU. There were some hurdles — such as language.
All classes are taught in Spanish. While she is proficient in reading and writing in Spanish, she said in an email from Chile, her conversational skills were lacking at first.
“As the program continued, I became more acquainted and was able to communicate much easier with Chileans,” she wrote. She’s learned about the Chilean health system and how the various indigenous populations are affected.
Study abroad also paid off for Willard McCloud III, a graduate from Morehouse College, who spent a year at Oxford University, where he immersed himself in courses including international economics, art, British history and government.
“Living overseas really opened my eyes to being a global citizen,” said McCloud, 41, who is global director for inclusion and diversity for Cargill in Minneapolis. He was also one of 18 African-Americans who applied through Morehouse to participate in the Luce Scholars Program and lived in Asia for a while.
He said those experiences allowed him to stretch himself personally and professionally.
“My ah-ha moment came as an African-American living in London,” said McCloud. “For the first time I saw myself beyond that. For the first time, I was seen as an American, and that’s a very different experience. In America, every day you are reminded in some way that you are an African-American male. It was very powerful to me.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.