Pack Your Passport!

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Study Abroad Programs Center Access to International Education

After hearing stories from her sister about studying abroad, Briana Johnson, a music performance student at the University of Kentucky (UK), began searching for an inspiring adventure of her own.

It wasn’t until her mother contacted her about the Explore First program, a study abroad initiative at UK focused on developing career skills for first-generation students, that she found an experience that accommodated her needs.

Her first study abroad trip was to Dublin, Ireland, where Johnson had the experience of a lifetime, including an unforgettable moment singing in a cathedral at the nearby Maynooth University.

“After that [trip] I was like, I want to go abroad again, so I’m actually going to Austria this summer,” says Johnson, who will travel with the American Institute For Foreign Study. “[Explore First] showed me that the sky’s the limit. I’m going to shoot for the moon and land on the stars.”

This new opportunity will allow Johnson to meet language credit requirements for the bachelor of arts program she is enrolled in at UK. Although credit won’t transfer for an additional course focused on Mozart, she is especially excited for this venture.

Despite an increase in underrepresented student participation in study abroad programs over the years, gaps in diversity persist.

For example, only 8% of first-generation students have studied abroad compared to 15% of second- or later-generation students, according to The Consortium for Analysis of Student Success Through International Education, a research initiative led by the University System of Georgia.

While nearly 70% of study abroad program participants in 2021-2022 were White, only about 5% were Black or African American, 8% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 12% were Hispanic or Latino, 5% were multiracial, and less than 1% were American Indian/ Alaska Native, according to data reported to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Yet study abroad centers often broadcast a wide range of benefits, such as exposure to new cultures and education, greater postsecondary completion rates, personal growth, and career development opportunities.

Unfortunately, research finds that underrepresented students often feel unwelcome or uninformed about international education experiences. They are more likely to participate when programs are designed to serve student populations with similar backgrounds, according to the 2022 report “Study Abroad: Perspectives from Historically Underrepresented Student Populations,” published in the Journal of College Access.

To address this, higher education institutions and stakeholders are developing creative programs aimed at reducing barriers, cultivating skills, and building student confidence.

University of Kentucky

The Explore First program, launched in summer 2023, offers the opportunity for four cohorts of 15 first-generation students to participate in study abroad sessions each summer in Dublin or London.

The program is based on the National Association of Colleges and Employers Career Readiness Competencies, offering college credits in a professional development course. It was developed with this general focus in order to allow students with varying degrees to participate, says Niamh Larson, UK executive director of education abroad & exchanges.

“We know the skills that the students will develop from this program will help them when they try and apply for internships, maybe their junior or senior year,” she says. “They’re learning really tangible career skills that will hopefully then set them apart in all of their applications.”

Explore First covers almost all costs. Students who apply pay a $500 deposit toward the program, which then covers airfare, housing, all activities, and some group meals.

University of Kentucky Explore First students at LinkedIn in Dublin, Ireland. Explore First is a study abroad initiative for first-generation students. (Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky)

While financial barriers must be addressed when developing similar programs, institutional leaders should also focus on building a student’s skills and self-confidence, says Larson. That’s why UK created the cluster program that includes a weekly meeting allowing students to get to know each other and focus on travel preparation, whether it’s related to packing, budgeting, or researching the country’s culture.

“[Some students] may not even have plans to ever leave the state of Kentucky, but they don’t realize that some of the [employers] have a global reach,” says Larson. “Exposing students to how the world works allows them to better understand their own country, their own place, their own sphere of influence, but it also allows them to be able to engage and interact with people who may not be like them.”

University of Memphis

The University of Memphis (UofM) offers a similar initiative tailored for students from underrepresented backgrounds, known as the Study Abroad Access Initiative (SAAI).

Jonathan Holland

While a different scholarship program is available at UofM for students interested in pursuing international education programs, those funds aren’t distributed until late in the process, says Jonathan Holland, assistant director of the Helen Hardin Honors College. SAAI is unique in that it addresses the hurdle of up-front expenses by off-setting the cost of a passport and a round-trip international flight.

To be eligible for an SAAI scholarship, students must be active members of the UofM TRiO program, a resource group for those who are first generation, low income, or have a disability, or in the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI), which works to improve African American male undergraduate collegiate experiences and graduation outcomes. To date, SAAI participants have traveled to Japan and Costa Rica, and will soon travel to Italy.

Since SAAI launched in 2017, UofM has seen an increase in the number of first-generation and low-income students studying abroad, says Rebecca Van Dyck-Laumann, JD, executive director of UofM’s Center for International Education Services. To continue expanding the initiative, new grant funds awarded last year will advance the training of academic advisers to further expose eligible students to international education opportunities.

“Working with [TRiO and HAAMI] allows us to promote education abroad opportunities to an identifiable group of first-generation, low-income students who may not be aware of the possibility of engaging in an education abroad program as part of their academic career,” she says.

One significant obstacle is that students are typically unaware of available financial support for international education, adds Holland.

“[Students often] assume it is not possible to study abroad,” he says. “My advice is to talk to your campus study abroad office and you are likely to find an affordable program that fits [your] personal, professional, and academic needs.”

Angelica Alaniz (back right), UofM student, and her peers practice what they learned in the Spanish for Healthcare class at the Health Fair at Veritas University in Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy of Angelica Alaniz)

After her SAAI experience traveling to Costa Rica, Angelica Alaniz, a senior studying international studies and anthropology, with a minor in Spanish, was inspired to also pursue a master’s degree in public health and medical anthropology. For students who are interested in finding a program of their own but may feel intimidated, she says to not be discouraged.

“I [recommend] asking for help or advice,” she says. “It never hurts and everyone is always available and can get you access to what you need. I think that the hardest part that everyone worries about is the application process, money, and essays — but it’s not hard when you have the support.”