An international educational experience offers students many
long-term benefits, including self-confidence, a broadened world view,
and expanded career path. Yet traditionally underserved populations
remain underrepresented in education abroad. Given the benefits gained,
non-participants may be at a competitive disadvantage. Building
awareness of the barriers these populations face in pursuing
international opportunities—and how to better support them—plays a
critical role in addressing this disparity.
In 2016 the National Center for Education Statistics
reported that 46 percent of all undergraduate students identified as
people of color, a 27 percent increase since 1980. Yet while diversity
in higher education continues to increase, representation in other areas
of the undergraduate collegiate experience have not followed suit. This
is particularly true of international experiences. In 2017, 71 percent
of US study abroad students were white; 10 percent were Hispanic or
Latino; 8 percent were Asian, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific
Islander; 6 percent were black or African-American; and less than 1
percent identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to IIE’s Open Doors data. These numbers are an improvement over previous years, but there is still room for further growth.
It is also important to think of representation in terms beyond race
and ethnicity, including all groups that have not traditionally
participated in global programs. In addition to racial and ethnic
minorities, Diversity Abroad—an
international organization that connects diverse students with
meaningful international experiences—identifies the following groups:
economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, LGBTQI+
students, and first-generation students.
Gender is another important consideration. Though women make up the
majority of American study abroad participants, they are included in
diversity discussions as a result of sensitivities around gender
inequality in host countries. Men, on the other hand, have in fact been
underrepresented in international programs. IIE’s data for the past
decade show the female-to-male participation rate for students studying
abroad has consistently been two-to-one.
The factors influencing participation from these groups are varied
and complex. However, by identifying the issues deterring international
study and recognizing factors that encourage participation, counselors
can better serve their students. Table 1 offers a breakdown of these
obstacles as well as practices proven to mitigate these challenges.
Making the decision to pursue an international educational experience
takes time and energy, but above all it requires students to be aware
it’s even a possibility. There are several organizations currently
working to provide services and information for underrepresented
populations in international education. Some of these organizations
cater specifically to certain groups, and most of them focus on
short-term educational opportunities. However, their content can also be
applicable as students consider the viability of pursuing other
international experiences, such as three-year full degrees abroad and
community college-to-international university pathways. A list of
organizations and resources can be found in Table 2.