Multicultural groups step up effort to promote study abroad programs

When the University’s study abroad office and multicultural center pitch international education programs to minority students this year, the Black Student Union will take charge of the conversations.

Led by president Danica Brown, the Black Student Union will play a larger role than ever to encourage black, Hispanic and Asian students to participate in study abroad programs that have been historically mostly comprised of white students.

Brown, noticing a lack of student input in programming between the Office of Study Abroad and the Multicultural Student Center, has helped five student groups get on board with the effort to boost the number of minority students who study abroad.

About three-quarters of GW students who studied abroad last year were white, compared to 59 percent of all GW students who are white. Nationally, about 80 percent of U.S. students who go abroad are white.

Brown, who became the first in her family to study abroad when she traveled to South Africa last fall, said she wants students to hear from peers’ experiences rather than administrators.

“It’s more about getting students to lead the conversations and get more realistic expectations about going abroad,” she said.

The group’s first move is to steer GW’s annual diversity abroad panel for the first time, with students helping to pick the panelists and the questions. The event, which Brown will moderate Nov. 13 in Funger Hall, will take place in the evening, rather than during the day, to increase turnout. It will feature students talking about their experiences and answering students’ questions about studying in a foreign country.

Multicultural student organizations, such as the Organization of Latino American Students, will also play a more active role in the panel. Brown said members of the Black Student Union have attended the event in the past, but this year they have “more of a stake in it.”

“What did happen before is that we weren’t necessarily an essential part of the plan. It was more like, ‘Put this on your listservs,’” Brown said.

She said she has tried to promote study abroad programs for the rising percentage of minority students who major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – majors that make it tough to schedule a semester abroad because of stringent requirements.

About 8 percent of all students who went abroad over the last three years were black, which is actually slightly higher than the 7 percent of GW undergraduates who are black.

Michael Tapscott, director of the MSSC, Michael Tapscott, director of the MSSC, said students often lack support from their families to study abroad and do not have access to information while still in high school.

His efforts have had mixed results, with the percentage of Hispanic and Asian students studying abroad fluctuating over the last three years. Last year, about 12 percent of students who studied abroad were Asian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, while about 7 percent were Hispanic. Nearly 10 percent of GW students are Asian and about 8 percent are Hispanic across the University.

Deidre Young, who manages student services at an international organization called Diversity Abroad, said the biggest barrier is a lack of role models, like family members of minority students, who have gone abroad.

She said when universities promote study abroad as a chance to experience different cultures, they don’t appeal to students who are already experiencing a different culture at predominantly white schools like GW.

“They experience one culture at home and then a different culture at school or work,” Young said. “Institutions and study abroad organizations would be better off emphasizing the practical skills and career and personal benefits of study abroad.”

-Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

This post was updated Nov. 5, 2013 to reflect the following:

Correction appended
The Hatchet incorrectly reported Michael Tapscott said he tries to pitch study abroad programs to students while they are still in high school. Instead, he commented on how students do not have access to information while still in high school.

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