THE BLOG

Study Abroad: It's Not All Black and White

04/08/2015 07:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
Hero Images via Getty Images

It's white.

Though an unprecedented amount of American students are choosing to study abroad today, the number of minority students involved in study abroad programs is not rising proportionately. According to a recent study by the Institute of International Education, minority students make up a small percentage of people who decide to study abroad. Black students only account for five percent of students studying abroad. It seems the opportunities study abroad offers has no boundaries, except possibly for the race of students who participate in it.

I first realized this during my spring break trip to Poros, Greece. My three girlfriends and I boarded the ferry from Athens that would take us to a small island for our day trip. We wondered why everyone kept looking at us. Granted, the four of us were headed to a lesser-known island during its off-season on a random Thursday morning. But we kept getting stares.

When we docked at the island and got settled, we soon realized that along with being almost the only tourists there we were clearly the only black people as well.

As we walked around the island, every local warmly welcomed us. At a family-owned restaurant the wife and husband owner were so hospitable and gave us pita bread and dessert on the house. A waiter in another restaurant directed us to the best bars in town. The man who owned the hotel we stayed in made dozens of arrangements for us.

Yet most of the people we encountered couldn't wrap their heads around the fact that four black girls from L.A. were in Greece. I let it go. I didn't think too much about it. I headed back to London that next day where I'm studying abroad and continued my schoolwork.

When it comes to the demographics of those who study abroad, there is a lack of representation for minority students across the board. An Institute of International Education's study states that minority students -- which includes Asian, Latino and African American students -- comprise 20 percent of U.S. students who study abroad. These demographics are not representative of most college campuses. For example, at the University of Southern California, U.S. minority students make up 35 percent of the student body.

Some experts are arguing that the already small percentage of minority students traveling abroad might be remaining stagnant because of economic factors. For example, in the past school year, 92 percent of black students received some form of financial aid from the government compared to 77 percent of White students. Due to the extra costs of traveling and sometimes increased costs of living conditions -- particularly in the U.K.-- it lessens the likelihood for students of color to afford traveling abroad.

Jillian Baker, an African American student at the University of Southern California, said she opted out of study abroad during her junior year because the study abroad cities were too expensive and they didn't cater to her interests.

"I couldn't afford the programs offered for my major, such as London and China," she said. "I didn't want to study abroad just to say I did so."

She will be studying in Brazil beginning in July and will continue through the fall of her senior year. Baker said her five-month venture in South America will make her the first person in her family to study abroad and also give her more perspective on her identity.

"I've always wanted to travel to a country that was a major component of the African diaspora, so when the opportunity presented itself to study abroad in Brazil, I took it," Baker said. "I hope to learn what it means to be black in a place with such a connection to African culture."

Yet many students of color who have studied abroad in several different parts of the world said they believe the perception of being "the only one" who looked like them in their classes is something they considered before signing up. Many organizations are now trying to make an effort to increase funding for minority students studying abroad.

Social media is also playing a pivotal role in representation of more black and Latino students traveling abroad. Some social media accounts are using digital avenues that young adults use in their daily interaction. Travel Noire is a popular Instagram page with a following of more than 87,000 people. According to their mission statement, the account highlights people of the African diaspora who are traveling throughout the world by sharing photos of them in foreign countries.

Toni Oni, a junior at Cornell University who is studying abroad in London and is Nigerian-American, said she is an avid follower of Travel Noire's Instagram page.

"I see it as something other black people can look up to and become inspired from," Oni said. "Even when I come across some of their pictures, it makes me think 'I want to get out there, I want to travel.'"

Garrison Jones, a black senior at the University of Chicago, said studying in Paris for a term gave him a clearer perspective on the United States.

"I definitely developed a greater appreciation for the U.S.," Jones said. "I also wanted to be able to live in an unfamiliar environment and become more socially aware."

And it's not just black students. Hispanic students are also an underrepresented group of students who travel abroad. According to national statistics, Hispanic students account for 6 percent of U.S. students learning abroad. Carleton College student Omar Reyes spent a term in London and Spain during his sophomore year and said the time outside of his Minnesota college helped him develop in a way he could not have in the U.S.

"I wanted to learn more about the origins of my Hispanic roots and also create a network of friends that is much larger than my college or hometown," he said.

He said when he got to Europe he instantly recognized the benefits of studying abroad, but his decision to do so "was a result of one or two friends taking the initial leap to explore the option of going abroad."

Therefore representation matters. It all became clear to me while I sat with my friends who looked like me in the heart of Athens with Acropolis in our background. In college so much of your education takes place outside of the classroom. When it comes to study abroad, that is only amplified. The learning that occurs during study abroad has no limits, and neither should the people who can tap into these resources.