Educators encourage minority students to study abroad

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 | 1:50 p.m. CST

PHILADELPHIA — When Sade Adeyina's college roommate started bugging her about studying abroad together, she never thought she could afford a semester in Italy.

Yet the friendly peer pressure — combined with financial aid and timely academic advising — led Adeyina to say "Arrivederci!" to Temple University in Philadelphia and head overseas for the first time.

Educators want more minority students to follow the lead of Adeyina, an African-American graphic design major. Foreign study is seen as crucial to student development and even as a key to national security, yet minority participation badly lags in overall presence on college campuses.

"It's really a matter of persuading young students of color that this is possible for them and this is necessary for them," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor of the Institute of International Education. "You come back changed ... more self-confident."

About 81 percent of study-abroad students are white, though whites represent 63 percent of enrollment in higher education, according to 2008-09 data released in November by the New York-based institute.

Blacks make up 4.2 percent of study-abroad students but are 13.5 percent of the college population. Latinos are 6 percent of study-abroad participants but nearly 12 percent of higher education students. Asian-Americans, representing 6.8 percent of college students, are slightly overrepresented in study abroad at 7.3 percent.

Barriers often include lack of funds, fear of racism, worries about delayed graduation and few role models — either family or faculty — who have traveled abroad.

But better marketing might help. Instead of touting foreign study as an essential cultural experience, universities could stress it as a path toward self-reliance, independent thinking and valuable job skills, said Augustana College researcher Mark Salisbury.

"Minority students don't need to seek out cross-cultural experiences by traveling to another country because, in most cases — especially as students at majority white postsecondary institutions — they already interact across cultural differences every day," Salisbury and two co-authors wrote in a study to be published in March by Research in Higher Education.

Congress began to address the disparity with the federally-funded Gilman scholarship, which has provided study-abroad funds for low-income Pell Grant recipients since 2001. About 55 percent of last year's Gilman scholars were minorities, according to the Institute of International Education, which administers the program.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wants to expand foreign learning opportunities with a bill to create the $80 million Sen. Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation, a public-private entity that would award grants to students and institutions.

Simon, the late Illinois lawmaker, had pushed for increased funding for international study after 9/11. Only about 1 percent of U.S. undergraduates study abroad.

"Expanding study abroad should be a national priority," Durbin said in 2009 while re-introducing the legislation, which has yet to win full congressional approval. "The future of the country depends on globally-literate citizens who are at ease in the world."

In January, North Carolina A&T State University began working with the American Council on Education to promote international learning at historically black institutions, a project partly funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Minnie Battle Mayes, director of A&T's international programs office, said it can be hard to get students who are from small towns and who lack any worldly frame of reference, to look beyond the campus.

"Many times our students are North Carolinians, and coming to Greensboro is coming to the big city," Mayes said. "In this 21st century, you've got to be global."

Among the efforts at A&T is a new annual $10 student fee to create an international education fund that offsets study abroad expenses. Mayes hopes it will help alleviate financial anxieties — sometimes unfounded — that can deter students from applying.

At Temple, about 9 percent of students in the study-abroad program are black, more than double the national average. About 11 percent are Asian, also above average, while the 5 percent Hispanic involvement is slightly below the norm.

Although the university has a diverse student body to begin with — about one-third minority students — Temple also starts "sending the message very, very early" that foreign study is essential, said Denise Connerty, assistant vice president for international affairs.

"There's some perception still that study abroad is a luxury not integral to the academic experience," said Connerty. "It's not an extra. It shouldn't be."

Promotion is ubiquitous, from open houses for prospective students through freshman orientation and beyond. Temple University President Ann Weaver Hart pays the processing fees for students getting their first passports.

For Adeyina, a 21-year-old from Burlington, N.J., the key was early academic advising that showed she could graduate on time if she went abroad as a sophomore. If she went junior year, she'd miss too many required classes in her graphic design major.

Now a vocal advocate for study abroad, Adeyina described her time in Rome as a challenge she met and embraced. She already feels it influencing in her art.

"The experience of a lifetime, definitely," Adeyina said.

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