The Art of Studying Abroad

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Uncategorized, Upfront

How not to behave beyond the U.S. borders

Record numbers of college-aged students are beginning to take advantage of study abroad opportunities. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of American students studying abroad has tripled in the past two decades, with nearly 300,000 students leaving the United States annually to explore the world as of the 2012-13 school year.

Places of higher education, like Harvard Business School, have begun making study abroad mandatory for MBA students. Their program, Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD), allows Harvard students to work with global partners in their field, as well as immerse themselves in an international experience.

Schools across the country are pushing study abroad programs and with good reason. The statistical benefits for students who have studied abroad are impressive. According to University of California Merced, about 85 percent of study abroad students think their experience gave them skills for their job market.

About 97 percent of students who study abroad find employment within 12 months of graduating, compared to 49 percent of their peers, according to UC Merced. A fourth of those study abroad students start with higher salaries. However, of American students, about 76 percent of those studying abroad are Caucasian, according to IIE.

Jennifer Simon, a graduate student at Georgia State University, and James A. Ainsworth, an associate professor of sociology at the same school, published a study in 2012 titled “Race and Socioeconomic Status Differences in Study Abroad Participation: The Roles of Habitus, Social Networks, and Cultural Capital.” They found black and lower socioeconomic students are largely underrepresented in study abroad programs, denying them access to valuable resources that the researchers claim are “increasingly important in our globalizing world.”

Simon and Ainsworth found this inequality spurred from the way study abroad programs historically were initially established. They were often seen as luxuries and were available only to the children of the higher economic classes, since the programs were typically expensive. Study abroad was initially only offered at highly exclusive schools, often made up mostly of upper class white students. Other factors that lead to the exclusion of minority students and those in lower socioeconomic classes included the elitist perception of study abroad and the duration of the programs, which were often for at least a semester.

Study abroad is often thought of as an exchange, rather than a power imbalance. However, in reality, study abroad is a system with unequal power dynamics that interrelate with social, political and economic factors. This is both true at home and abroad. At home, certain students have access to study abroad, while others don’t, with white students disproportionately participating in study abroad programs.

Abroad, unequal power dynamics can be seen between travelers and natives, especially in developing nations.

The point: travel, in itself, implies privilege. David Jobanputra is an anthropologist and filmmaker in London. He has done considerable work in Rajasthan, India, researching collective action. He also wrote extensively about a range of topics, including international development and travel.

“Travel requires time and money, both of which are the preserve of the privileged,” Jobanputra said. “In fact, the dictionary definition of ‘privilege’ is something akin to ‘a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed by a person beyond the advantages of ‘most,’ and since most people, globally, do not have the surplus time or money to dedicate to travel, the latter is necessarily indicative of privilege.”

He noted, however, that power imbalance varies depending on who the traveler is, as well as who the native people are. Jobanputra said studying in London is drastically different than studying in a place like Lesotho, the landlocked nation completely surrounded by South Africa. According to IIE, currently, the majority of study abroad by American students takes place in Europe. However, studying in developing countries is becoming increasingly more popular, demonstrated by an increase in study abroad in Southern Africa by about 17 percent. However, Jobanputra said that tourism, by nature, is imperialistic.

“Travel is born of inequality, of gaps of power and wealth,” Jobanputra said. “Like imperialism, travel involves territorial expansion and the occupation of foreign lands.”

No matter where one travels to, local livelihoods are transformed. Jobanputra said it becomes a guest-host relationship in which the guest has economic power, putting the host at its mercy. This applies especially to situations in which Westerners travel to developing countries that do not share the same cultural practices as countries that are considered “developed” by the Western travelers.

“Swimming pools, beach bars, English breakfasts and banana pancakes — these are the wants of imperial travellers,” Jobanputra said. “If the good sahib wishes to eat a hamburger in Hyderabad, or if ma’am sahib is wont to wear her miniskirt in Marrakesh, so be it! As ever, the West knows best.”

Jessica Namakkal is an assistant professor at Duke University in the International Comparative Studies program. Her research focuses on decolonization in the 20th century. She has done work on a project that expands the understandings of decolonization from the relationship between conqueror and natives, moving it to a global context.

“There are many practices of tourism that benefit from the colonial system. One simple example is economic: Wealthy people like to be tourists in less wealthy places because they can ‘get more’ for their money,” Namakkal said. “The fact that the USD or the Euro or the British Pound is worth more than an Indian rupee or a South African rand or the Mexican peso is directly linked to empire.”

Namakkal said this economic imbalance becomes more apparent to students when they travel abroad, especially in comparison to places that may have significantly fewer resources than a typical Western university. Though this realization may prove important, many — including Jobanputra and Namakkal — claim the system of study abroad itself is structurally imperialistic.

“Study abroad, especially to non-Western countries, sometimes mimics colonial projects of knowledge extraction — the model of sending in a Western expert to extract knowledge from local people and bring it back to the center of Empire,” Namakkal said. “This is often recreated in study abroad programs that place students as more knowledgeable than the local people.”

However, Namakkal said not all study abroad programs are this way and there are some programs that purposefully try not to replicate colonialist models.

Namakkal also said there are ways to travel better. One of her suggestions is to know something about the culture and the history of the place to which you are traveling prior to your arrival.

“For example, if you’re studying abroad in Nigeria, take a class on the history of Nigeria — understand what has happened there for at least the past 50 years. Recognize the struggles and issues that affect the daily lives of the people you may interact with while abroad,” Namakkal said. “The annoying man on the street trying to sell you something may be doing that job because his farm was lost due to the growing prevalence of big farming.”

Another suggestion by Namakkal is to understand what life is like in the country you will be visiting for people that share your identities.

“If you’re a woman, or queer, or a person of color, find out what life is like for people like yourself in the community you are going to visit. Instead of looking around and declaring there is no one like you where you are going — go find them and see what matters to them,” Namakkal said. “Don’t just accept what you see as truth — find people to talk to, ask them what they care about, learn from them instead of teaching them.”

Charlotte Robertson is a freshman integrated marketing communications major who spends her spare time crossing borders and checking her privilege. You can email her at

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