If we want more underrepresented students to study abroad, we can’t treat them all the same

“When I studied abroad in Argentina and France, I was one of few that one would classify as a visible minority. In both programs, almost everyone who participated came from middle- and upper-middle-class families”

When discussing how to increase participation in study abroad, we often talk about ‘underrepresented students’ as if they’re all the same – we need to take a different approach, argues Richie Santosdiaz, an economic development expert for PA Consulting and passionate advocate for international education.

When we talk about increasing participation in study abroad among underrepresented student groups, we must first understand what an underrepresented group is.

In the context of international education or even higher education in general in the USA, this is those who are not represented in proportion to the US general population. Visible ethnic heritage in recent memory ­­­– African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans – gets much attention. Other factors such as religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability can mean students aren’t well represented. And students from families with low incomes are often mentioned, as well as first generation born Americans and first generation university educated families.

The stats show that study abroad numbers are becoming more diverse, which is great news, but there is still some way to go.

As an example, figures from NAFSA, compiled from data from IIE’s Open Doors Report and the Department of Education, show that ethnic minorities who are enrolled in universities in the USA are not reflected in the numbers that study abroad.


Is there enough support for underrepresented groups in international education?

As an advocate for international education, I am thrilled to see an increase in the number of young Americans who are interested in learning about the world and committing semesters, a year, or even completing entire degrees overseas. However, I’m convinced that we can do more to help encourage more young people from traditionally underrepresented groups—whether it be by heritage, ethnic background, or income—to study overseas.

I propose the following three points below as a starting point:

  1. Don’t lump all underrepresented groups together

When I’ve seen this topic presented, often people will lump underrepresented groups into one category. With international education, it is incorrect and inaccurate to do this because you will not understand the group in detail.

When I studied abroad over a decade ago, completing semesters in Argentina and France, I was one of few that one would classify as a visible minority. Also, in both programs, almost everyone who participated came from middle- and upper-middle-class families. So within the lumped class you already have two subgroups, based on economic background.

Solutions to encourage ethnic minorities from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds to study abroad would not necessarily be the same as those ethnic minorities from low-income households. Ethnic minorities from low-income households are likely to have an economic drive that would prevent them from going abroad, as would Caucasians from low-income households.

“Scholarships alone will not encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad”

Institutions should be listening so they are able to identify and understand who exactly are their so-called ‘underrepresented groups’ in detail, for most may have various subgroups within that group that have different needs.

  1. Don’t assume scholarships alone will encourage more underrepresented students to study abroad

Institutions are proud, as they should be, to offer an increasing amount of scholarships for those of visible minority backgrounds. Many universities and study abroad institutions, such as CIEE, give out at least partial scholarships to students in underrepresented groups. There are portals that aid in minority access to scholarships, such as Diversity Abroad, which primarily post opportunities for students who are ethnic minorities or from low-income or first-generation backgrounds.

Nevertheless, scholarships alone will not encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad. Being an ethnic minority does not mean you are poor; some students from first-generation families and ethnic minority families might struggle more with their families’ and friends’ attitudes towards international education.

In my case, I come from a first-generation ethnic minority background and a strong middle-class family in suburban Chicago. The scholarships I received on merit and as an ethnic minority did help tremendously, but the biggest challenge I found was actually trying to sell the idea of study abroad to my family in the first place. They asked me, “Richie, we immigrated and worked hard here in America, and you want to go abroad and leave – why?” I was definitely persistent at the time, as I secretly hid my application forms and only told them I got accepted to study in Buenos Aires three months before the start of the program.

They asked me, “Richie, we immigrated and worked hard here in America, and you want to leave – why?”

When my younger brother and sister both went abroad, my parents were much more open to the idea. But for me, I had to face the barriers to opportunities that many first generation students and ethnic minority families experience.

Another challenge was that there were instances of both unintentional and intentional racism that most of my study abroad classmates would never have to face. With this topic, other forms of support like mentoring and support prior to and during the study abroad term would have been needed.

  1. Make sure you know you know the subgroups you are targeting and are getting the community involved

For universities looking to boost numbers of students studying abroad, it’s important not only to understand the subgroups of the underrepresented population, but also to get them involved.

I remember a while back when there was controversy over a hearing in Congress where a committee group was discussing issues around birth control. The group was only about five people and all were men. How can you discuss birth control and not have women involved?

“How can you discuss birth control and not have women involved? The same rule applies here”

The same rule applies here. For decisions that will affect underrepresented groups, those groups need to be involved. This includes not just giving feedback but also involvement in the decision-making of policies, incentives, and other initiatives that would aim to encourage more underrepresented groups to study abroad.

We can encourage more underrepresented college students in the USA to pursue international education opportunities

Not lumping underrepresented students together or assuming that only ethnic minority scholarships will solve the problem, and truly understanding the underrepresented and getting them involved in the process of reform will be great starting points for boosting the number of diverse students in international education, especially those who are first-generation or visible ethnic minorities, or who come from lower-income families.

In an increasingly globalized world, study abroad and international education are opportunities that should be attainable by all American college students. I am grateful myself to have had the opportunity. It has clearly impacted me, writing this article in London where I now live and work. It was a stepping stone to my international career and I hope it will be for all future generation American students as well.

Richie Santosdiaz (@santosdiazr2) is mainly a London-based economic development expert for PA Consulting. In his free time he is an undergraduate-level adjunct lecturer mainly in the fields of international business & trade, where he teaches courses and guest lectures for institutions like the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in London. He is also an advocate of international education, specifically encouraging more young Americans to gain international education and work experience. One way he does that, as a hobby, is through his website www.youngamericanexpat.com.