Students share how studying abroad has allowed them to see and experience the world through a different lens that fosters growth and leadership.
One of my favorite quotes is from the prolific writer Mark Twain that says, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” As someone who has traveled to six continents, I know that statement to be true. However, I wish I had had the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange program while I was in high school and college. I recently had the pleasure of traveling with a multicultural group of graduate students from International House, aka I-House, based in New York City. Through that experience, I saw first-hand how a cultural exchange can affect students’ outlook on the world as well as their sense of self.
Life Through a Different Lens
One of those students is Blean Girma, an American whose parents are originally from Ethiopia. While pursuing her Master’s in public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, she was a fellow at I-House and participated in the diverse cultural exchange programming. The program’s travels helped to foster peace building and understanding among students of diverse countries and cultures. Girma also participated in the Black history tours of Georgia, Alabama and Washington, D.C., funded by the Fund II Foundation, as well as an immigration tour of San Diego, funded by the Ford Foundation.
“In the Los Angeles community where I grew up, there were more Blacks from the African Diaspora than the United States. So I didn’t fully understand what it was like to be a Black American. But when I took the I-House Black history tour, I learned so much about Black Americans’ and immigrants’ contributions to this country that I never learned in school,” says Girma. She continues, “I originally thought I would study here and then go work in Ethiopia. But now I see how much immigrants of African descent have brought to this country, and I feel that the communities here need my attention, too. Now I feel like everyone who is of African descent is one big family, so I get to help an even bigger population than just Ethiopia.”
“I-House was founded on the belief that if you bring together students from around the world and the U.S. to live together, there might not be any more world wars. It’s a leadership immersion community. So we are providing our residents with a parallel education to the ones they’re getting at their graduate schools. We create an environment of life-changing experiences where they can engage and break down barriers,” notes Sharon La Cruise, I-House Vice President of Admissions, Programs & Resident Life.
I-House was the first global community of its kind, predating the United Nations. Graduate students from any school in New York can apply to be a resident. Along with their cultural tours, monthly programming includes documentary screenings on social justice issues, Pulitzer Prize-winning author book signings, speakers from every industry, and social events such as resident-led cultural events.
La Cruise adds, “For almost 100 years, we’ve had people living together here where their countries may be at war – Pakistanis, Indians, Palestinians and Israelis, etc., but there are no wars here. Our residents get along and respect each other and prove that we have more in common than not. And they’re learning to use their talents for good, whether in this country or in their home country.”
Study Abroad Programs That Foster Growth
I-House is a unique experience here in the United States, but another cultural exchange experience is through study abroad programs. These programs are available for students as young as middle school. Rielly Rudolph is an 8th grader at University Prep Science & Math in Detroit. During her spring break last March, she was able to take a study abroad trip to France where she learned the history and culture of places such as Nice, Lyon, Monte Carlo and Paris.
“It was amazing! I liked the culture, the atmosphere and the castles and architecture from the 1700s. And I was surprised to find that they spoke many more languages than just French. I’d love to do a trip like that again, but next time I’d love to do Peru or Costa Rica to see the ancient pyramids,” she exclaims.
David Ericson Rudolph is thankful that trips like this, through a partnership with EF Educational Tours, are available to students as young as his daughter Rielly. “I didn’t have the opportunity to travel abroad until I was in college. But traveling through Europe and Australia really expanded my mind and also made me realize that there are Black and Brown people all over the place. So I want Rielly to have a global view of the world and learn to appreciate and respect other cultures. I’m hoping that travel abroad will help her to become a well-rounded adult,” explains Rudolph. He adds, “And I think we really need to educate our community on the value of having their children travel abroad and various ways they can finance it.”
Creating a Generation of Well-Rounded Leaders
Rudolph and his wife, Contessa, are some of the lucky parents who have the finances to pay for their child’s study abroad. However, that’s not always the case for many Black students. A recent report by the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) noted that only a little over 10 percent of study abroad students come from Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). One of the main reasons is because many students from MSIs are low-income and many MSIs don’t have the resources to support study abroad. That’s why CIEE and CMSI collaborated to form the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship (FDGF) which covers the cost for ten outstanding MSI students to participate in a four-week study abroad program focusing on leadership and intercultural communication in London, England and Cape Town, South Africa.
“We’re very intentional in this program about selecting leaders and building global leaders. All of these students are extremely high-achieving, motivated freshmen and sophomores. We really intend for these students to demonstrate their leadership on their own campuses, getting other students to study abroad, and taking other opportunities to lead in various communities,” declares Dr. Keshia Abraham, CIEE Director of Strategic Initiatives.
She continues, “We anticipate that this generation of Frederick Douglass Global Fellows are going to be the next Fulbrights, the next Rhodes Scholars, the next leaders of the world. And they’ll know from these study abroad experiences…a great sense of their identity and a great understanding of intercultural learning and leadership.”
The fellowship is all expenses paid, with fellows coming from schools such as Howard University, Virginia State University, Benedict College, and Spelman college, where Abraham herself attended as an undergrad and traveled abroad to Zimbabwe. The program is in its fourth year, with 375 applications this year. There are so many applicants that CIEE has decided to start a second program for those who qualify but don’t make the 10 Frederick Douglass Global Fellows. That program has given $1,500 each to 75 students to help fund any summer abroad program that they apply and qualify for.
“For students of color, I think the opportunity to study abroad is the most liberating tool that we could possibly give them. And I am of the firm opinion that you have not finished college until you have studied abroad, because it gives you some of the material you need to have in order to understand who you are in the world and find your way in that world,” says Abraham, who studied abroad while an undergraduate and during graduate school.
Girma agrees. “I am now a more globally-minded person. And I’m hopeful that experiences like this will help with race relations around the world.”
Additional organizations providing cultural exchange/travel abroad opportunities and scholarships for students include Student Cultural Exchange, The Education Abroad Network, Academic Programs International and I Am C.U.L.T.U.R.E.D.