study abroad

The Whiteness of U.S. Study Abroad

At the recent conference for the American Association of Applied Linguistics, I organized a colloquium with Rhia Moreno Kilpatrick called Disrupting the Whiteness of U.S. Study Abroad.  The other presenters in the colloquium were Uju Anya and Wenhao Diao, whose work I also recommend checking out, especially as Uju’s amazing book Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil won the AAAL first book award this year! For some numerical background, according to the Open Doors report, 71% of U.S. Study abroad students are white.  

This post is a summary of part of my talk where I used photos on a program website to demonstrate how even when we take real steps (such as financial support) to promote and support including underrepresented groups in study abroad, we often still do it in a way that doesn’t really challenge what I called the “default whiteness” of study abroad.  That is, we focus on trying to increase the numbers of students of color studying abroad, but don’t really think about some of the problematic ways in which we represent study abroad.  To explain what I mean, I’ll look at two pages of a program website. 

In critiquing these pages, I want to make it clear that while I chose this website for my example, this is not so much a critique of this specific program (which I have worked with for a faculty-led study abroad in the past), but of U.S. study abroad generally (which I am also a part of as a researcher, practitioner, and former study abroad student).  The problems I describe are readily apparent in most study abroad websites I look at, even to a larger degree than the pages I’m critiquing here.  In fact, I chose these particular pages because this program is in fact making some concerted efforts to include underrepresented groups in study abroad.  

So, what are the problems? We’ll start with this page, which is focused on increasing access to study abroad.  As page content changes (hopefully for the better), I’m putting screenshots of the page as it is when I’m currently writing this (March 2019).  

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The page opens with a “challenge”, explaining “More of the world's jobs require language skills, intercultural knowledge, and international experience than ever. And most U.S. college graduates aren’t prepared.” It then offers increasing study abroad as a solution to this problem.  While fully support increasing the numbers of students studying abroad, presenting study abroad as the only solution to getting “language skills, intercultural knowledge, and international experience” is highly problematic, as it erases the language skills and intercultural knowledge students gain within the United States, for example by being raised in multilingual communities, or needing to accommodate to dominant white middle class cultures that differ from home or community ones.  International experience is also something that students could have if they emigrated as children, or live in border areas.  Racially minoritized students are almost certain to fall into one or more of these categories, and yet the skills they develop are not recognized as relevant to study abroad.  

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Next, the page talks about solutions, and how to address the “three C’s”—Cost, Curriculum, and Culture.  Again, cost is a major barrier, especially as we know there is a racial wealth gap.  Curriculum is also important, and we know that including more short-term programs in a variety of disciplines has helped more students study abroad.  So, addressing these problems is essential.   However, I want to focus a little more closely on the “culture” aspect of study abroad, where the website presents the solution as “nurture acceptance, approachability, value, and adventure in the study-abroad landscape.”  Nowhere is race mentioned, even though we know racially minoritized students are underrepresented in study abroad, and the “culture” of study abroad is predominantly white and (upper) middle class.  While racially minoritized students are not the only groups underrepresented in study abroad, not mentioning race perpetuates a “colorblind” ideology that obscures the real structural problems we face in overcoming racism.  

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Then, the website moves on to “opportunity” explaining that by increasing study abroad, we can make more U.S. students valuable job candidates.  This raises other concerns I won’t go into in this post, such as the neoliberal connection with jobs and “value”, and the colonial perspective in emphasizing only this value to U.S. students and using words like “adventure” to describe study abroad, but perhaps in other posts!

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What I’d like to focus on next though is the pictures at the bottom of the page, above “The CIEE Pledge” and the “$20,000 CIEE Access Grant”.  The students above the former, presumably already abroad, appear to be mostly white.  In contrast, more of the students in the latter appear to be students of color.  Now, race is a social construct, so I want to make it clear that judging someone’s race from photos is a problematic practice, and certainly influenced by my own racial position (white).  However, I think it is also problematic to juxtapose photos of students abroad and students who needed extra access to study abroad where the former appear mostly white and the latter mostly to be students of color.  While it is true that many study abroad websites don’t represent students of color at all, and this is even worse, I think we also need to be careful how and where we represent students of color in our study abroad websites to avoid reproducing deficit perspectives that dominate in education settings.  

This issue is even more apparent on the next page, which is the main college study abroad page for the organization.  If we scroll past the tourism photos (another subject for another post!) till we get to people, the following four photos appear in a gallery you can scroll through

 If you hover over the photo, there is a testimonial quote from the student, and the program (which I’ve just screenshotted as separate pictures).  In three of the four photos, there are pairs or groups of students who present (to me) as white, with no specific location given for their studies.  The fourth picture is of a student who presents (to me) as black, alone with some penguins, and listed as studying in South Africa (with no personal quote).  Again, it is important to represent students of color in photos of study abroad, so this is an improvement over no representation at all.  And yet, why is this student alone, why is she the only one with a specific geographic location, and why does she have no voice in a testimonial quote?  Again, it seems that in pictures of study abroad, white students are everywhere, and students of color, if they are pictured at all, only appear in limited spaces within the study abroad structure.

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Scrolling down further (past more tourism photos) we see more evidence of this.  White students bicycling and scuba diving are pictured next to titles like “design your own semester” and “highest quality programs”.  Students of color appear next to “access & opportunity”.  Scrolling further, we get a silhoutted person on a camel, and white students with an elephant (want orientalism/colonialism much?) and then the pictures end.  

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So overall, what do we see in these pages? White students having adventures, with students of color inserted as needing access and going to specific locations.  Meanwhile, the language and intercultural skills they have acquired at home (and that a white student like me for example would need to rely more on study abroad for) are erased, even though there is research demonstrating they build upon these skills to expand their linguistic and intercultural knowledge abroad.  Yes, this is only one website, but take a look at some more—what do you see? 

Furthermore, this is the website of a program that is in fact trying to address this issue, and is putting real resources to it (and again, financial support is a major barrier that cannot be ignored).  If these problems are this apparent when we are trying to help, what about when we are not? If we want to address the very real problem of the underrepresentation of racially minoritized students in U.S. study abroad, we need to be able to see just how white it is, and how we uphold this culture of whiteness in our representations and expectations of study abroad.   Yes, this is uncomfortable for those of us who are white and were raised with colorblind ideologies, but we can’t fix problems that we won’t admit exist and don’t understand how we perpetuate. 

Once we are aware of the problem, there are lots of things that can be done, as the other speakers in the colloquium pointed out, including hiring faculty of color on study abroad programs, representing students of color in study abroad, connecting them to experiences and locations abroad they find culturally relevant, listening to their experiences and not expecting them to be like those of white students, and having returning students of color interact with potentially interested students (again, check out their work!).   

So, what do you see in our representations of study abroad? If (like me) you work in this field, as a researcher, practitioner, or participant, what will you do to shift these representations?

(Hands image from stokpic on pixabay, rest screenshotted from linked pages)

Ethnographic Projects for Study Abroad


Photo by Joaquín on Unsplash

In my very first post on this blog, I discussed how despite popular belief, language and intercultural learning are not automatic outcomes of study abroad.  I also mentioned three key components of study abroad programs necessary to promote these outcomes: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  In this post, I want to focus on one of my favorite interventions for study abroad, that of ethnographic projects for study abroad.  

What is an ethnographic project for study abroad?

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher(s) spend a lengthy period of time (usually years) within a community, with the purpose of describing the culture of that community from an inside perspective, traditionally through the production of an ethnography.  The tools ethnographers use include participant observations, informal conversations, interviews, photographs, videos, and other visual data.  They then analyze this data to describe the particular culture or cultural practice as it is viewed by members of the community (as opposed to outsiders).  

Ethnographic projects for study abroad use the same tools and methods of analysis, but differ from traditional ethnographies in key ways.  First and foremost, students do not have the training of professional ethnographers, nor do they spend an adequate time in the field.  Secondly, the primary goal is developing students language and intercultural skills, not producing a research project.  The basic sequence is for students to complete training in ethnographic methods at home (the home ethnography) then collect their data while abroad, and then write up their project upon their return home (the abroad ethnography).  

The two main examples of ethnographic projects for study abroad in the research literature I am familiar with are the Language and Residence Abroad (LARA) Project described by Celia Roberts and her associates and the Special English Stream (SES) analyzed by Jane Jackson.  The LARA Project focuses on students from England studying abroad in Germany and Spain and the SES Project on students from Hong Kong studying in England.  More recently, there is the Ethnographic Encounters Project from the University of Southhampton.  I’ve also written about my experience designing an ethnographic project for study abroad (and the challenges therein) in my chapter in this book. I would highly recommend reading the literature on these projects as a basis for creating your own.  

Why are ethnographic projects an appealing intervention? 

I find ethnographic projects for study abroad particularly appealing because they incorporate all of the elements research shows is necessary to promote language and intercultural learning during study abroad: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  They can also encourage critical approaches to language and intercultural learning, which is something that I think is frequently ignored in language classes, and yet has so much potential for social change if we only made it a focus.  

1) Creating language and intercultural contact:  By forcing students to engage in observations, informal conversations, and interviews, students have to find opportunities for language and intercultural contact.  Even if the possibility of conversing or interviewing in students’ own language exists, the fact that this is part of their language class may make them more likely to incorporate the target language as well, or even better develop an understanding of the social connotations of  different linguistic behaviors.  Second, they have to sustain this contact in order to develop their project—it’s not enough to have one conversation or observation.  

2) Reflecting upon this contact: Due to the emphasis on interpreting data from an insider perspective, students also have to reflect upon multiple ways of interpreting their data, and how their own interpretations may differ from those of community members.  This includes not only their interpretation of what particular conversations or practice mean, but also understanding how their own views are encoded in their data collection (for example if they describe a cafe patron as “attractive”).  This ability to understand situations from multiple perspectives is key to the development of intercultural competence.  

3) Connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences: Students receive training at home, collect data while abroad, and create their final project after their return, which allows for a natural connection between these periods as well as continual focus on language and intercultural competence.  While this can be difficult to orchestrate bureaucratically, research demonstrates that it is essential to create these connections.  

4) Encouraging critical approaches: The potential of critical approaches in the language classroom is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but for now I’ll focus on a few ways I think ethnographic projects for study abroad can play a key role.  First, a focus on interpreting linguistic and cultural practices can be an introduction to sociolinguistics, particularly how we use language in our construction and interpretation of social identities, and how these identities connect to larger structures of power.  Although all of us do this daily, and learn these identities and power structures in new languages and communities, language students rarely have the opportunity to reflect upon how this works, especially in lower level classes that focus on “neutral” or “standard” varieties.  This takes me to my next point, which is really perhaps the most important one: learning how to critically analyze relationships between language and power in “new” communities can give us new insights to these relationships in familiar ones, because our “new” insights now open up cracks in our previous worldviews, and allow us to see problems in our cultural practices we were previously unaware of, or aware of but unable to describe.  

Designing ethnographic projects for study abroad

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that ethnographic projects for study abroad are a key research-based intervention, the question is how to design them? I’ve designed two of these projects so far, one an independent study for a student abroad for an academic year, and one part of a faculty-led study abroad that included an 8 week at home component and two weeks abroad.  I’ll be revising this latter one when I do this program again later this year.  Based on my experience, I’d say the main considerations are as follows:

1) Timing—how many course hours are available for the project and how long do things actually take? In my academic year project, fitting in extra independent study hours was a major challenge for both the student and myself.  In the faculty-led study abroad, the short time frame meant that I couldn’t simply use materials made for a semester long course as there weren’t as many hours, but then it took me much longer than I anticipated to adapt those materials for a shorter time frame.  Understanding the timing is of course something that gets better with time (and time-tracking!), but it’s definitely worth thinking about from the outset.  

2) Materials—what materials will you use to teach the course? In the academic year project, I used an undergraduate ethnography textbook by Murchison, and in the faculty-led study abroad I modified the LARA project materials.  While I do think it’s easier to start with materials already made for undergraduates, it’s also almost certain that these will need to be modified to fit your context.  For example, some of the LARA project materials had references specific to England (like pub culture) and I had to think about how this might be more relevant to my students.  Alternatively, there might be things you want to include that aren’t in the materials you are using (in my case, critical approaches, which are usually thought of as “advanced”, but I disagree and would like to use them from the beginning).  

3) Activities—what activities will students do and how will they encourage language contact and reflection upon that contact? In both projects I’ve done, I’ve followed a pretty traditional sequence of moving from observations, to informal conversations, to interviews.  While this has worked well, it’s also key to think about how your feedback will fit into the sequence such that you can encourage reflection in subsequent assignments—this is something that was a challenge for these projects as I fell behind upon grading or students fell behind upon completing the activities.  

4) Final project—what will the final project look like? In the two projects I’ve done, I’ve had students write a final paper and also turn in their data collection and analysis, since using these methods for language and intercultural development is more of a focus than the final paper itself.  In my next iteration of this project, I may consider expanding the options to a video and/or recorded presentations to give students more options for expressing themselves, since producing a written ethnography is not actually a key outcome of this type of project.  

5) Post-project reflection—I think this is important for all projects, but especially research-based interventions in language learning.  Both of the projects I’ve done have helped students develop their language and intercultural competence (e.g. making them speak to more people, or use more Arabic, or giving them tools to consider alternative interpretations of situations in subsequent study abroad).  However, neither of them when exactly as I envisioned them going after reading the research literature.  This is party contextual differences, but I think also stems from the fact that we are encouraged to gloss over the challenges of implementing these types of projects in the classroom when we write research articles (as I was when I wrote about these projects in my book chapter, I had to actually argue with the reviewer comments to keep my discussion of the challenges in!).  However, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and how much time things actually take, and what materials were more or less accessible to students, and what they need more training on is key to further development of these projects.  

Have you tried these ethnographic projects for study abroad to promote language and intercultural learning? How did it work out? Would you try them in your own program? 

Does study abroad lead to intercultural learning?

For U.S. students, study abroad has never been more popular—according to the Open Doors data from the U.S. State Department, the number of students studying abroad has more than doubled since the turn of the 21st century, and about 10% of U.S. students will study abroad during their undergraduate career.  As a study abroad researcher, this is both exciting (because more students are getting this opportunity) and disheartening (because there seems to be little attention paid to what happens after students cross that national border and gain the status of a study abroad student).  

If intercultural learning is a goal of study abroad, both intercultural contact and reflection upon that contact are necessary components of the experience.  Although there are many (sometimes conflicting) views of the purpose of study abroad, one assumption in institutions of higher education in particular is that study abroad results in improved intercultural learning, due to the intercultural contact experiences students will have abroad.  Unfortunately, research on study abroad shows that neither intercultural contact nor intercultural learning is a guaranteed result of being placed in geographic proximity to other cultures.  Study abroad students may socialize primarily with co-nationals, engaging with locals only in service encounters.  Even when they are able to join local social networks, intercultural contact alone does not lead to intercultural learning—there must be reflection upon that contact for learning to occur.  

Sustained contact requires doing things together over time.  To make this happen, there generally has to be a shared interest, such as participation in a class, club, sport, job, organization, etc, or a value exchange, such as paying for accommodation, lessons, or engaging in a language exchange.  Yet finding these opportunities, particularly if students are studying abroad for a short period of time with little program support outside of the classroom, is not always easy.  

Then, there is reflection, which is a skill unto itself.  To learn from a contact experience, students must be able to think about that experience, and have the skill to interpret its events from multiple perspectives, and possibly in multiple languages.  This requires mental space that is not always available in programs packed full of classroom and extracurricular activities.  Study abroad is also a highly emotional experience, and experiencing strong emotions can also make reflection more difficult.  

Although I have heard people say that it is on the study abroad students themselves to find opportunities for contact and reflection, and that is what the “good” students do, I strongly believe that programmatic interventions are necessary if we want to make this a reality for the majority of students.  After all, 63% of U.S. students study abroad for 8 weeks or less, a time frame that allows a greater diversity of students to go abroad, but limits their opportunities to develop local connections and reflect upon these experiences.  

Of course, as is usually the case when applying research, there can be conflicts between what the research says is ideal, and the constraints of a particular context, such as student finances or the timing of an academic semester.  Although this used to frustrate me, I now believe it is an opportunity to look for creative solutions that maximize research ideals within these real world constraints.  

For example, in 2016 I developed a two-week faculty led study abroad program in Jordan, where the time frame would seem to severely limit the amount of intercultural contact students could engage in.   To extend this contact, I had the students engage in an 8-week telecollaboration with Jordanian language partners prior to the experience abroad and made activities with these partners the focus of each day abroad.  The telecollaboration built up a sense of anticipation for the trip, and allowed the students have already developed relationships with their partners prior to meeting them in person.  The activities, such as going to a movie, or cooking a meal, or visiting a historic site, allowed them to spend time together.  To encourage students to reflect upon their experiences for their partners, they were required to complete an ethnographic project for study abroad, which required them to think back upon these experiences, and find out possible interpretations of them from their partners.  Although a longer time period abroad would certainly have allowed for more learning, it would also have required a time and financial investment some of my students could not afford.   

So, does study abroad lead to intercultural learning? Sometimes. Let’s see if we can make it all the time!