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4 Things Study Abroad Programs Get Wrong (and What We Can Do About It)

by Amanda Machado Feb 16, 2017

1. They too heavily favor Western Europe.

Nearly two-thirds of all study abroad programs take place in Western Europe. Thought there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to spend a semester in that area of the world, by providing this option far more than others, schools dissuade students from exploring countries and cultures with far more differences (and often far less privilege) than our own.

American education is already largely limited to lessons about the West. By encouraging mostly Western study abroad programs, we continue our habit of providing a mostly Western perspective of history and art.

Students can petition their universities to instead include programs that focus on sustainable, ethical travel through non-Western countries. Organizations like Global Service Learning have helped develop research that evaluates programs under these standards. Ask your university to ensure that their international programs follow the same standard.

2. They create “study abroad bubbles” in foreign countries that don’t allow students to truly immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

The majority of study abroad programs allow U.S. students to live with each other, and take classes in English. These programs are sometimes referred to as “island programs” because of the distance and isolation they create. Students end up technically living abroad, but in reality studying, partying, exploring, and overall interacting mostly with other U.S. students.

As Stacie Nevadomski Berdan argued in the New York Times: “Although U.S. students attending these satellite campuses are actually living in the host country, they’re still part of the American education system. Generally speaking, they are taught by American professors who include an international or local component to their subject material. But all too frequently, the whole experience is more American than international.”

In an article by Justin Pope for the Associated Press, one student who spent a semester in London admitted that “parts of the experience didn’t feel all that different from being back on campus at Syracuse university”. She was quoted as saying: “Our social circle was pretty much other people in the program.”

Students can ask their university to spend less study abroad funding creating “island programs” and instead invest in partnering with local institutions and local professors that can provide a more immersive experience.

3. They still often exclude low-income students and students of color.

An article in the Development Set said that around 80% of study abroad participants come from upper-class, white backgrounds. According to an article in the Hechinger Report, though black Americans make up 13% of college students, they make up only about 5 percent of Americans who study abroad. Though Latinos constitute 11% of the college student population only 7.5% of study abroad students are Latino. A report by the Washington D.C.-based Institute of International Education found that though non-white students make up almost half of college students in the United States, they only make up around a quarter of study abroad participants.

My own study abroad program only had a handful of people of color. The transition from spending a semester at my university, where 30% of the student population were students of color, to a far less diverse semester abroad was jarring.

Diversity Abroad helps combat this problem by connecting non-white, first-generation immigrants, and low-income students with foreign study opportunities. Students can petition their universities to do the same. Ask your university what their international programs office has done to create inclusivity, address racism and classism, and recruit students from a variety of backgrounds.
For example, my study abroad program CIEE has prioritized increasing the diversity of their program participants and has even helped low-income students obtain passports for free.

4. They don’t often address issues of class, race, gender, western privilege and other power dynamics that become more apparent while traveling.

I’ve written before about how travel, particularly in a study abroad program, can become an entirely different experience as a person of color. Other Matador writers have written about how this also applies for LGBTQ travelers, female travelers, non-Western travelers, travelers with a disability or travelers with other societal privileges. Yet most students I knew who participated in study abroad programs told me these issues were rarely, if ever, discussed. Instead, many programs assume that as U.S. students and citizens, we will all experience a foreign country in similar ways.

Fortunately, universities like Brown University, Smith College and others have already created more resources to help inform students how these issues affect a traveler’s experience. Before participating in any program, ask your university what they have done to educate participants about issues of power and privilege while traveling.

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