Meeting Students Where They Are, Speak Directly to Their Interests

How the University of Oregon is getting diverse students to consider study abroad

By Lisa Calevi, Institutional Relations Manager for Global Education Oregon, a national study abroad program provider based at the University of Oregon.

Currently, only 27% of Americans who study abroad are students of color. So when I heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates was scheduled to visit my campus, the University of Oregon (UO), I jumped at the opportunity to not only hear more from the acclaimed author of Between the World and Me, but to also engage with some of the students attending Coates’ lecture, by drawing them to an earlier session on identity and international mobility.
The goal? To provide a forum for diverse students to share their unique reflections on their experience of identity abroad, potentially inspiring their peers to consider pursuing an international experience as well.

In the weeks leading up to Coates’s February 3rd visit, the UO study abroad office, Global Education Oregon (GEO) collaborated with Oregon’s Division of Equity and Inclusion and the Multicultural Center to host a panel, Living Abroad in Your Skin, to reach a diverse student body.

Like many, I found Coates’ Between the World and Me to be an eye-opening, and deeply moving book. Though I was struck by many things, I was particularly drawn to Coates’ reflections on how swiftly the embodiment, or disembodiment, of race can take place outside of one’s home country (in Coates’ case, in France), and how the larger social construct of race translates when abroad. My hope was to get students to make the connection between their interest in Coates’s writings on racial identity and their own identity experiences they may have had while abroad. Drawing upon Coates’ experience as the framework for the discussion, moderator Dr. Jane Irungu, assistant vice president of student engagement at the UO, used excerpts from Coates’ book — particularly around the concept of “translating” identity while abroad — to guide the truly inspiring hour-long discussion that ensued.

Living Abroad in Your Skin panelists, Global Education Oregon at the University of Oregon

Six panelists from many backgrounds discussed themes from Coates’ book and how they negotiated their identities abroad. The panel included a student from Iraq, two African-American students, two Latina students and one white female student, each offering insights about how an international experience can impact perceptions of identity.

As the conversation progressed, many of the students highlighted instances of finding acceptance where they studied abroad. One student who studied in Ecuador described the feeling of “being part of the majority” for the first time. She also referenced an experience that others echoed, saying, “people were really welcoming…everyone just treats you like you.” This was in contrast to feelings that several panelists expressed having in their home country. One said, “I never feel like — if I’m here — I’m American enough, and if I’m home with my family I never feel like I’m Mexican enough.” Another, a black student, expressed relief at not having to explain details about her black identity (in the UK) that American peers would often ask about, such as her hair. Another student was struck by the way in which his international peers, accustomed to black people living in the UK hailing from countries throughout the Caribbean, South America, and Africa would be stymied by his response — “I’m African-American” — to their question regarding his heritage.

The event drew students, faculty and administrators, but equally exciting was the visibility it engendered on campus: the UO carried our Facebook Live stream of Living Abroad in Your Own Skin on its home page. As a result, more than 15,000+ students received notifications about this important topic of conversation; of those, 3,356 clicked on the video stream to hear more.

According to Irungu, “Studying abroad not only provides students with unique experiences and perspectives, but also an opportunity for reflection on how the new realities are unpacked and interwoven in students’ own identities and worldview. This was pretty clear as we listened to our panelists share their stories tonight.”

Given that we are still far from reaching the goals for participation by diverse students in education abroad, many in the field rightly advocate for more strategic approaches to diversity and inclusion across the board. Indeed, on the UO campus, the broad scope of such work is highly visible. In a recent message to the UO community, President Michael Schill underscored the university’s commitment to inclusion, writing “Efforts to divide us based upon the color of our skin, our nationality, our immigration status, our abilities, our diversity of thought, our gender, or our sexual orientation must be called out and stopped.” Targeted activities to support this strong message of inclusion, even those that occur on a relatively small scale such Living Abroad in Your Skin, can play a critical role in supporting a larger strategic vision, particularly in their ability to harness the power of the student experience to raise visibility about the importance of increasing diversity in study abroad.

The student panelists shared highly engaging stories of their time abroad and served as an important reminder of why the student perspective is paramount to how we understand the landscape of international mobility…for all.