The following is an insight on my study abroad experience that was originally posted in the St. John’s University newspaper, The Record on 3/24/17. It is also a critique of study abroad and explores how race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status affect communities from the perspectives of non-whites.
Study abroad is one of the most celebrated aspects of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSB/SJU). Per last year’s Open Doors report, CSB/SJU has been among the nation’s best when assessing the number of students who study abroad. There are more than 40 study abroad programs at CSB/SJU and nearly 60 percent of students study abroad before graduating. So naturally, it was hard for me not to be excited to participate in one of the programs this spring.
As both an international student and a student of color, I thought I was ready for study abroad. I had travelled many times and lived in multiple countries, so surely studying in another wouldn’t be much different. I fondly remember the day I received the acceptance email and the study abroad preparation meetings that followed. What I don’t remember was considering how my race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status would affect my experience.
I suppose it was naïve of me, in hindsight, to not seriously consider those factors. I recall thinking about culture shock, but the real culture shock didn’t come from my new environment or from the new culture; it came from what was familiar, the CSB/SJU community I found myself in while abroad. I remember eagerly trying to participate and integrate and be a part of the new community that was forming. Every event, every get together, every night of drinking and cheer, I would be there because I understood how important it was for me to stretch myself; how important it was to step out of my comfort zone. And yet, there was a fatigue that was growing — the kind that is common when persons of color navigate white spaces on a regular basis.
I remember when the protests were happening on campus because that whole situation added another layer on top of what I had been processing all semester. I wondered why nobody talked about them and why it felt like I was the only one who cared. The more I wondered, the more isolated I felt. It was like I was carrying a heavy burden because while I was adjusting to the standard parts of the experience – the new environment, the new classes and so on – I battled the microaggressions and loneliness that occasionally came with being a minority student abroad.
There was a longing to talk about it all, to discuss what I was going through and how I was feeling, but I never knew where to start with my white counterparts. Quite frankly, why would they care? Nobody ever wants to talk about race or difference and there was a strong community taking shape, just like the one at CSB/SJU. When I had discussions with the other few persons of color in my program about it, I found that they had been thinking and feeling similarly. And then, when I discussed it with other persons of color who’d studied abroad, it was the same.
It is important to acknowledge the different experiences that minority students face when studying abroad, but it can’t stop there. These differences need to be a part of the conversations, seminars and overall preparations that occur before these programs begin. If the CSB/SJU community is serious in its continued commitment to inclusivity of all persons, this is the only way forward.