My 17-year-old daughter, Aziza, is off to college this fall. She’ll be a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. She is beyond excited and has already informed my husband and me that she plans to triple major in marketing, French and English.
Aziza founded The Multicultural Club at her high school and she served as the President of the French Club, so she was thrilled when she found out that UT Austin has a great study abroad program in Paris. “Paris!” she exclaimed. She also announced that she’s planning to do a second study abroad program in another French-speaking country.
Lucky for us, she received a hefty merit-based financial package with her acceptance letter.
Needless to say, I’m proud of my daughter’s achievements, as any mother would be. But I’m especially impressed by her drive to ensure that international experience is an integral part of her undergraduate education.
Aziza wants to do BIG things. And in today’s economy, BIG is synonymous with being globally focused. Unfortunately, far too few Black college students are supplementing their college studies with international experience.
This lack of global experience means that not enough African-American students are positioning themselves to compete in the new global economy. As parents, however, we have a unique opportunity to change this reality and help jumpstart our children’s career earnings.
We’ve made a lot of progress—don’t get me wrong. More of us are sending our children to college than ever before. And more of our children are becoming doctors, lawyers, professors and business leaders. Yet, African-American students account for only 5.3% of the total number of Americans who study overseas. Yes, you read that right. Just barely over 5%.
Why does this matter?
It matters because as the U.S. job market becomes more competitive, it’s important that our children can get in the game—and stay in it. It’s no longer enough to have a bachelor’s degree to launch a successful well-paying career.
International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education. Today, you have to understand other cultures, be able to communicate in a foreign language—not just English—and be prepared to interact with the world.
President Barack Obama knows this. His Associate Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities gave the keynote address at a recent conference hosted by Spelman College and the School for International Training on this very subject.
It was attended by representatives of HBCUs and corporate foundations, who gathered to examine the reasons why so few African-Americans study abroad, and determine how to remove the barriers and create support for more Black students to study in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.
The School for International Training, part of the D.C.-based non-profit World Learning, is a leading provider of high quality, rigorous study abroad programs. They value racial diversity and put their money where their mouth is, providing grants and scholarships to kids with potential, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an enriching experience overseas.
They are working with colleges like Spelman and Morehouse to create programs that have cultural significance and create opportunity for black youth at both of these colleges and beyond.
If you think study abroad is a distraction with little academic value that delays graduation and thereby increases the cost of college, you’re wrong.
Studies show that study abroad improves a student’s critical thinking and boosts graduation rates. According to a well-known long-term study conducted by the 35 institutions of the University System of Georgia, four-year graduation rates were 31 percent higher for African-Americans who studied abroad compared to those who didn’t.
Their GPAs were also higher than their peers who did not study abroad. It also kept many Black students on the four-year track.
The study abroad gap has an impact beyond college performance—it threatens other gaps in professional fields that demand international experience, such as the corporate track and the non-profit/NGO sector, as well as political leadership.
A recent Washington Post editorial written by two senior diplomats noted that only 5.4 percent of the Foreign Service is African-American, a statistic that pretty much mirrors the low participation rate of Black students who study abroad. And you can count on one hand the number of African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—a situation that won’t improve unless we encourage our children to get experience in the world.
The costs don’t have to break the bank. In my new book College Secrets, I talk about accessing scholarships and grants for college with advance planning and research. Those same strategies will help your child find money for study abroad programs as well.
Globalization is changing the way the world works, and employers are increasing looking for workers who have international skills and overseas experience.
When we think about educating our children and preparing them for the today’s workforce, we must keep this in mind. Study abroad can help them build real world skills not taught in classrooms in America and that, in turn, will help the next generation get ahead—in school and in the job market.