Jackson State University Offers Students a Passport to the World

How one historically black college is offering its students a once-in-a-lifetime international experience

In 2012-2013, a mere 9 percent of U.S. undergraduates studied abroad, according to data from the Institute of International Education (IIE). About 76 percent of those students were white, while only 5.3 percent were African American.

“When I read the data, it was a revelation that very few [African Americans] travel abroad,” says Priscilla Slade, special assistant to the provost for international studies and community colleges at Jackson State University (JSU), a historically black college in Jackson, Miss.

Priscilla Slade, special assistant to the provost for international studies and community colleges at JSU
Priscilla Slade, special assistant to the provost for international studies and community colleges at JSU

For Slade, this was more than a number — it was a call to action. “That’s when we began to study our students to try to understand why,” she says. “Once we understood why, then we would develop a program that would systematically peel away the negative reasons.”

Some reasons proved more obvious, such as cost, length of time away, and concerns over graduating on time. Others, Slade says, were more deeply rooted. “The largest obstacle is the fear of the unknown, not being able to communicate with [foreigners] because they speak a different language,” she says. “How am I going to tell them if I’m hurt? How am I going to tell them if something is wrong?”

For Jessica Wilson, a junior marketing major at JSU, studying abroad always seemed out of reach. “I’m a single mom, so I didn’t know how it would work, how long I would be away,” Wilson says. “My obstacles were paying for it and graduating on time.”

With knowledge of the hurdles faced by students like Wilson, Slade began developing a program to directly address and overcome what are often referred to as the three Cs: cost, curriculum, and culture. Working together with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), JSU created its Passport to the World program, which launches this summer.

“I think what we’ve done with Jackson State is create a program that would sort of help overcome the three barriers that we see are primary,” says David Fougere, executive vice president of study abroad with CIEE. “So cost is usually a big barrier; curriculum, meaning that a lot of students have trouble fitting a study abroad experience into their major requirements; and then culture. Some students just think it’s beyond their reach, whether it’s because they are first-generation students or don’t want to leave their friends on campus.”

David Fougere, executive vice president of study abroad with CIEE
David Fougere, executive vice president of study abroad with CIEE

This summer program allows students to participate in a condensed four-week, faculty-led international experience that includes organized cultural, research, and experiential learning activities. Students spend two weeks abroad, followed by two weeks on the JSU campus. Those receiving summer financial aid are able to use the funds to cover some of the costs of the six-credit-hour course.

“We developed a program that, number one, was not so long that it took students away … for an extended period of time,” Slade says. “We developed a program whereby they can travel with people they know, and we made it cost-effective in that it fits within the realm of their already established financial aid.”

With the implementation of this program, JSU joined CIEE and IIE in their goal to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad before the end of the decade, an initiative called Generation Study Abroad.

To achieve this feat, CIEE has pledged $20 million in scholarships and $20,000 in grants to colleges and universities to support innovation in faculty-led programs, as well as provide 10,000 free passports to students by 2020.

“It’s been identified in the field of study abroad that one of the hurdles students face is that they think getting a passport is going to be so complicated, so complex, and so overwhelming that they just don’t study abroad,” Fougere says, “so we launched, as part of our pledge, a passport initiative.”

CIEE kicked off its passport initiative at JSU with its first Passport Caravan event, during which the organization gave away 100 free passports to students, which JSU matched by giving away 100 additional passports.

“We facilitated all of the paperwork, and we brought some passport agents from the local passport office to sit on the campus with us,” says Fougere. “We took passport photos, and we did everything necessary to get those students a passport, whether or not they intended to travel through the JSU program.”

While the event marked the first of many passport events CIEE plans to host, the organization’s partnership with JSU is not entirely unique. Last year, CIEE worked with Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta, Ga., to develop a program similar to JSU’s Passport to the World. Fougere says the college is already seeing an increase in study abroad participation.

A JSU student with children in Dakar, Senegal, on a study abroad trip
A JSU student with children in Dakar, Senegal, on a study abroad trip

“The first year of the Spelman program, I believe [there were] about 125 students participating,” he says. “This year, that number has gone up to close to 200. So we would love to see similar growth at Jackson State from one year to the next, and we will continue this outreach so we can broaden this type of partnership to other institutions.”

CIEE also helped offset costs for JSU students traveling this summer by “front-loading” a grant awarded to JSU into the program’s pricing structure, “so students would see a cost that was more reasonable and be able to enroll,” Fougere says. But while the grant is providing much-needed financial assistance, affordability was still a concern for students not receiving summer financial aid.

To help solve this quandary, Slade came up with an innovative idea: a crowd-funding fundraiser. Through the platform CrowdRise, she created a site where anyone — not just JSU students, faculty, and staff — could donate money to fund students’ travel abroad.

According to Slade, more than 800 students applied to participate in the Passport to the World program this summer. Those students were then screened, and individuals not meeting certain criteria, including a minimum GPA and good standing requirement, were removed from the running. Of the 500 remaining, each college at JSU selected 20 to 25 of its students to go abroad.

All five colleges at JSU are participating in the program, and each one selected a destination from a list of six, including Madrid, Spain; Paris, France; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Shanghai, China. Students are encouraged to study at the location selected by their school.

Through this program, Wilson will finally realize her dream of studying abroad when she travels to Shanghai this summer with other business school students. There, she says, she’s excited to experience the culture and learn about Asian economics.

JSU students during a study abroad trip to Dakar, Senegal
JSU students during a study abroad trip to Dakar, Senegal

For this opportunity, Wilson has Slade to thank. But while the program was made possible by Slade’s hard work and dedication to increasing access to study abroad for all students, she’ll tell you it’s just part of the job.

“We owe it to our students,” Slade says. “When we know that providing an opportunity to them, for them, will significantly enhance their future, that’s what we’re here to do.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information or to donate to the Passport to the World program, visit crowdrise.com/jsupassporttotheworld.