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Data indicates lack of diversity in SMC study abroad programs

| Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kathryn Mathews and Alice Yang thought there might be a lack of diversity in Saint Mary’s study abroad programs. So they decided to do some research.

Mathews, a senior, and Yang, associate director for international education, presented the results of their research concerning the shortage of ethnic diversity in the College’s study abroad programs at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference in May.

Each year, Saint Mary’s is asked to submit statistics about students’ study abroad plans to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Yang said the submission is important for the College’s institutional ranking on U.S. News and World Report.

This year, the IIE asked the College to break down the data by ethnicity for the first time.

“I was shocked by the numbers,” Yang said. “They were quite low for underrepresented groups.”

Mathews, a global studies major, said the College is not alone.

“It’s a national trend,” she said. “Institutes all across the U.S. are having low rates of study abroad. Many people want to change that and increase participation rates.”

Yang said for the past few years about 50 percent of Saint Mary’s students have studied abroad. However, between 2010 and 2015, only 16 percent of African American students studied abroad.

“It’s sad,” Yang said. “The African American student rate is much lower than average.”

The duo decided to dig a little deeper.

“We wanted to find out why that was,” Mathews said. “We want everybody who wants to study abroad to study abroad.”

Mathews and Yang conducted their research by asking underrepresented students a series of questions as to whether they wanted to study abroad, and if so, what obstacles were keeping them from it. According to their results, the majority of students weren’t studying abroad due to financial reasons, ability to keep up with academics and fear for safety — especially with international terrorism on the rise.

Based on their findings, Yang and Mathews compiled a website and booklet to help students see how they could overcome such obstacles. The booklet, titled “Study Abroad Handbook for Students with Diverse Backgrounds,” lays out the importance of study abroad, the different programs the College offers, the accommodations the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) office provides and possible scholarships or grants students can apply for.

“We want to share all the programs, institutional research and scholarship info to encourage students,” Yang said. “The different scholarships, off and on campus, the national scholarships — they all give priorities to students who are underrepresented.”

Senior Elizabeth Quaye is African American and studied abroad in Morocco last spring thanks to the information and assistance she received through the CWIL office about the Gilman International Scholarship, a $5,000 award given based on financial need.

“It really allowed me to travel around the country and to enjoy my experience while I was there,” Quaye said. “It is life changing. That’s something I want underrepresented students to know — it’s not just about academics, it’s about making friends, making connections and creating new opportunities.”

Yang said she came from China to study abroad in the U.S.

“It changed my life,” she said. “I was 31 and my son was 6 years old. When I came, I was an atheist, and here I met God, and I had another child here. Nothing is impossible, anything can happen.”

Yang said she hopes all students at the College can have the same opportunities.

“Our purpose is to encourage every student,” Yang said. “Employers are more likely to hire students who have study abroad experiences. Students experience personal growth and gain maturity and confidence.”

There are certain benefits that come with travel, Mathews said.

“You are also increasingly aware of global happenings,” she said. “You’re not in the bubble of the U.S.”

Quaye is now an ambassador for other underrepresented students like herself through the Sisters of Nefertiti, a Saint Mary’s club that celebrates African American culture.

“My job is to be the bridge between CWIL and the club,” Quaye said. “I never would have seen myself in this role and even this confident. I didn’t realize how far I have come.”

Mathews she is focusing on getting the message out to first year students.

“It is our goal in the future to sit down with all first-year students one-on-one to see their goals for study abroad,” Mathews said.

The pair is also working to make students aware of the different services the College offers, such as study abroad fairs, the handbook and the Belles Connect program. They’ve also joined the Diversity Abroad Network and plan to work with related offices, Yang said.

According to the research, study abroad programs also reflect a lack of diversity in majors.

“Some [majors] can be 95 percent and some are 11 [percent], like science and engineering,” Yang said. “We can advise students based on their major. We have 32 study abroad programs — different time lengths, different times of year.”

“We [Saint Mary’s] promise you discovery of the universe and your place in it,” Mathews said, quoting the words of Sr. Madeleva Wolff, the third president of the College. “We do our best to make it work. It’s baby steps, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Right now, Yang said they’re looking ahead — she hopes to be able to compare the data two years down the road.

“It’s not just about programs, it’s changing people’s’ lives,” she said. “We see people change and people grow. It makes our job meaningful.”

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