By Brittany Waddell-Allen, ISA South Africa Site Specialist
The number of students from underrepresented groups who study abroad has slowly increased over the last decade. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic students that have studied abroad since 2000 has risen roughly only two percent for each respective group (IIE, 2014). Despite this, there have been many strides within the international education community to increase the level of study abroad participation among underrepresented groups (specifically targeting African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, students with disabilities, first-generation students, as well as financial aid dependent students.)
As it relates particularly to African-American students, who constitute the largest racial minority in American higher education, research has been conducted to uncover the main reasons why black students are not taking advantage of study abroad opportunities. Currently, only 4 percent of African-American students study abroad during their college career. Some common perceived barriers to studying abroad for black students include:
- Lack of awareness of study abroad opportunities
- Too expensive, unaffordable
- Cultural misconceptions, fear of racism/discrimination abroad
- First-time international travelers
As a result of these barriers, many minority students miss out on the advantages of studying abroad, such as cultural enrichment, international professional opportunities after graduation, as well as personal development that comes with the experience. As an African-American who had the privilege of studying abroad 3 different times during my college career, including two semester programs at the University of Cape Town, I can personally say that the benefits of my experiences abroad have far exceeded my expectations academically, professionally and personally.
Study Abroad Can Shape Lives
Below you’ll meet 3 distinguished alumni that have two things in common: they all studied abroad at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, and they are all African-Americans. Listen to their stories about how studying abroad helped shape their personal and professional lives.
Jamal Douglas is a stage actor in San Diego, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Acting at the University of California-San Diego. He is currently a member of the Tony-Award winning Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Jamal completed his bachelor’s degree in Acting at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. During his junior year, he studied abroad for a semester at the University of Cape Town.
Brittanie Richardson is the founder and executive director of Art and Abolition – a solidarity movement that seeks to restore justice to young girls enslaved by the sex trade in Kenya by offering healing programs through art, education, and empowerment. She has joyfully given her life to share love with oppressed persons in marginalized and impoverished communities in East Africa and lives to see the power of Love bring freedom, equity, joy, and creativity. She graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2009 with a Bachelor’s in Performing Arts-Acting. She studied abroad at the University of Cape Town in 2008. She now lives in Mombasa, Kenya where she fosters and cares for girls rescued from sex slavery.
Raquel is a rising senior from the Bronx, NY studying at Trinity College as an English major. Raquel is pursuing teaching as a career and loves working with children. She has plans to make a living improving the lives of children in urban areas through education. She just recently returned from a semester abroad on the ISA South Africa program, studying at the University of Cape Town.
How old are you and what year did you study abroad?
Jamal: I am 27 and I studied abroad in 2008.
Brittanie: I am 28 years old. I studied abroad in my senior year of college  so I was probably like 22 years old or so.
Raquel: I am 21 years old and I studied abroad this past spring [Spring 2015] in Cape-Town, South Africa.
How did studying abroad help shape your academic and professional life?
Raquel: I was able to take two classes at the University of Cape Town. I am an English major and chose to take Modernism and African Literature and Language. Having the opportunity to discuss various texts from a South African lens was eye-opening and life-changing. For two hours per day, five days a week for twelve weeks, I volunteered at the Shine Centre, a Cape Town based organization located in twenty-four primary schools throughout the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu – Natal, that provides children in grades two and three with the extra push they need to do well in school. Great focus is dedicated to improving literacy skills in children, breeding a love for books and reading, and promoting a patient and inclusive environment that facilitates learning. The “nation of readers” I worked with were some of the keenest, most energetic, honest, polite, and passionate children I have ever met.
Brittanie: What I do now professionally is largely based on my volunteer experiences during my study abroad.
Jamal: Studying abroad shaped my academic life because it’s when I discovered what I wanted to do with my career. My focus while abroad was theatre in education and that’s at the core of my art today. In Cape Town I created a show that we took to local schools in the area and under- served communities. Community outreach is something dear to my heart and I believe art works best when it speaks for and to the people that live within the community there.
Do you think it’s essential for African-American students to visit Africa at least once in their lifetime? Why or why not?
Raquel: Yes. It’s revolutionary to spend time in a place where you are not the minority [demographic] for once.
Jamal: I think it’s very essential. As an African American there is a huge gap in our knowledge of our roots. Getting somewhere on the continent opens up possibilities of discovery and widens your perspective. Visiting one country on the continent won’t tie all loose ends, but it gave me purpose and made me look deeper into who I am.
How did visiting South Africa shape your perspective on the world?
Brittanie: It opened my mind a lot and made me realize that my perspective and experiences are only tiny specs of all the others there are in the world.
Raquel: One of the reasons I chose to study abroad in South Africa was to become more politically aware. I was able to witness change occur as it unfolded rather than have a 3rd party perspective. Watching the Rhodes statue fall and experiencing load shedding, for example, shaped my perspective on the world in a way that reminded me to never assume that all countries operate in the same way. It also helped me to understand that 3rd world countries have their issues, but they, too, are working diligently to eradicate them.
Jamal: The remnants of the struggles in South Africa are very present. Visiting opened my eyes to the beauty the world has to offer. Beauty as a result of pain and adversity. Through adversity, beauty sustains and evolves.
What is your most vivid memory of studying at the University of Cape Town?
Jamal: My most vivid memory is spending a day in Khayelitsha [township]. It was great to be in the community, an open mic in the streets, eating at a local hotspot, and visiting the home of a friend. I learned what looks like the slums to an outsider, is a home full of pride and spirit.
Brittanie: Honestly, the friendships and connections that I made.
Raquel: I had the most fun in South Africa when I was able to watch children interact with one another or when I got the chance to have a casual conversation with the children about their lives. One of the most memorable days at the Shine Centre was “World Book Day.” On this particular day, all Shine sessions were put on hold to have a book creation and celebration day. Children who came to the center on this day were able to author and illustrate their very own book, with their very own ideas. While I helped Liyabona create her book, other volunteers came around with an endless amount of snacks and sweets for the children to enjoy while they wrote their book. After taking a huge bite out of her apple, Liyabona looked up from her work, puts her colorful pencil down, and says, “This is a beautiful day!” in the most excited and grateful voice. I responded, “Yes, Liya! It is!” and she proceeded to finish drawing her illustration in her book. At the moment, I knew that I was placed the right internship. The joy that circulated the building that day confirmed my reason for being at Shine and there was nothing more satisfying than hearing words of gratitude from a child.
What advice would you give to current minority students who are considering studying abroad?
Jamal: My advice would be to just do it! Become friends with the native locals and learn about a new culture from being within it. Don’t get stuck in an American clique’, but immerse yourself in something new. Take chances, have great adventures, conquer a fear. It truly changed my life and shaped my career and focus in every area of my life.
Raquel: Have an open mind and an earnestness to grow. Understand that every day will not be a “great” day and there may be times when you question why you made the decision to go away. The experience you imagined in your head may or may not resemble the reality but if you can take something positive from every experience, you will not regret your decision and it will change your life, for the rest of your life.
Brittanie: Do it!
ISA is dedicated to promoting diversity by providing all students with access to quality educational programming abroad. Our Bridging Cultures Program and Discovery Model is designed to give students the support they need while abroad by facilitating multi-cultural events and excursions, offering knowledgeable on-site staff support, as well as fostering an environment in which students will be able to learn and process their cultural experiences.
ISA offers programs in South Africa at three exciting destinations: Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. In addition, Full-time Service-Learning and ISA Study + Service-Learning programs are available in Cape Town. If you are interested in studying in South Africa and would like additional information about these programs, please visit our website or contact Brittany Allen, the Site Specialist for ISA programs in South Africa.
For additional information about available scholarships and grants that may help finance your study abroad experience, visit the “Funding Your Program” page on the ISA website.