Increasing minority access to study abroad

Melissa Macaya

Rising tuition costs and cuts to financial aid resources are causing even the most adventurous students to think twice before studying abroad. For minority students especially, studying abroad has become a luxury.

While study abroad participation has more than tripled over the past two decades, minority student enrollment continues to be low, according to the 2011 Open Doors report, an annual publication of the Institute of International Education that collects data about study abroad participation rates across the country.

According to the report, the United States sent 270,000 students overseas, but only about 21 percent of them were minority students. Moreover, while study abroad participation increased by 4 percent overall during the 2009-10 school year, minority participation increased by less than 1 percent per group.

UT, which ranked fifth among institutions that sent students abroad, reflects the national trend of minimal minority participation. Of the 2,342 students who went abroad in 2009, Hispanic students comprised 14 percent and African-Americans comprised only 3 percent.

The lack of diversity in study abroad programs displays a crack in the system. While universities have made tremendous efforts to diversify their incoming classes, more needs to be done on campus to help give minority students access to study abroad programs.

As a Hispanic student at UT, studying abroad might not have been in the cards for me, statistically speaking, had I not been exposed to the opportunities offered on campus. My freshman year, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture on the importance of studying abroad. I began to research various options and realized that I could study abroad at little or no cost. I have participated in one summer study abroad program in Spain and two short programs in Cuba and Israel. These international experiences were tremendously valuable to me.

Unfortunately, not all minority students have been so lucky. Experts say a lack of information, motivation and personal finances are currently the main obstacles preventing minority students from studying overseas.

Finances, especially, are a big factor. Tuition and living expenses for a typical study abroad program can range from $5,000 to $10,000. According to the UT Study Abroad Office, annual scholarship money awarded to students across the University is more than $500,000. Many minorities, however, do not get to that stage of the process because they believe studying abroad is out of their reach. In an increasingly global economy, employers want people with a global perspective. Minorities must not miss out.

Websites such as DiversityAbroad provide scholarships and information specifically geared toward minority students. Additionally, the study abroad industry has taken significant steps to foster diversity. IES Abroad, one of the oldest study abroad companies with more than 60 years of experience, created an entire diversity department and hired a full-time diversity coordinator. It is the first international education company to do so.

On campus, the McCombs School of Business Study Abroad Office, which hosts seven faculty-led programs, has created scholarships to increase diversity in their programs. Last week, the UT Study Abroad Office launched the First Abroad scholarship, which provides awards to first-generation college students.

This is a start, but much more needs to be done. Although the opportunities are available, minorities must be exposed to them and the professional value studying abroad has. Classrooms abroad should be just as diverse as classrooms on campus.

Macaya is a journalism and Latin American studies senior.