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Courageous Conversations About Whiteness in Study Abroad

Two Study Abroad staff members, Kory Saunders and Kyle Keith, and one returned study abroad student, Marquan Hamilton, contributed to a recent national community discussion on the topics of inclusion, social justice, and anti-racist education. The Diversity Abroad Task Force on Race and Ethnicity’s Community Discussion: Having Courageous Conversations about Whiteness in Study Abroad and Global Education aimed to place whiteness and white identity at the center of a growing national discussion about privilege, fragility, and ally-ship in serving students of color in study abroad programs.

Saunders and her fellow Diversity Abroad Task Force colleagues Ramona Washington from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and Eric Castillo of Springfield College developed the community discussion presentation. Keith, who identifies as white, and Hamilton, an NC State student, provided insight from their personal experiences during the conversation on April 11.

We asked Saunders and Keith to share the importance of these conversations and a few highlights from their contributions to the discussion:

Why is it important to have open conversations about a lack of diversity in study abroad?

Saunders: When looking at diversity, it is always through the critical lens of marginalized racial identities, rarely through the lens of whiteness and white identity. In order for the field of international education to fully embrace and practice diversity, inclusion, and equity we must critically examine it from all sides. We can’t ask our students to examine their identity as they embark on global experiences if we are not modeling that ourselves.

Keith: The webinar’s theme was around whiteness and white fragility – essentially, how challenging it is for folks who identify as white to have authentic and critically important conversations around race and racism. These types of discussions are essential if we’re serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion in regards to the students we support here at NC State, and more broadly in the international education community.

What are some strategies for engaging white students on race in situations when the study abroad program’s theme doesn’t directly address issues of identity?

Keith: Arguably, all study abroad programs and international experiences deal with issues of student identity – particularly, racial identity – whether it is explicitly incorporated into the program’s theme or curriculum or not. However, this is often overlooked or not fully embraced for a variety of reasons. For white students who don’t often think of themselves in racialized ways, having facilitated discussions on identity can be a transformative experience. Having explicit conversations on race, identity, and comparing and contrasting experiences in the U.S to the country of destination can be a strategy on how to discuss this. One recommended pre-departure activity for program leaders that we have learned about is the Power Flower activity, which asks students to think about their personal identities – for example their racial identity or their religious identity – and then compare and contrast their identities to the dominant social identities of the United States, i.e., white, Christian, cisgender, etc. and those of their host country.

What are some suggestions and resources for white faculty members leading a diverse group of students abroad to help them best serve all students?

Saunders: Have a conversation with your students about race and identity. It is often times the elephant in the room, which creates a weird dynamic. Having candid conversations about it using a resource, such as the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, to educate yourself prior to the conversation will help. Also, self-reflection is helpful because students of minoritized backgrounds constantly have to reflect and adjust to situations and circumstances. This is something that is done consciously and subconsciously, so having some understanding about this issue can help the conversation. Finally, just because you are leading the program, you don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You do want to support your students of color knowing that their experiences will be different from yours.

How is NC State increasing diversity in study abroad?

Saunders: If I may use a phrase from the Women Center’s Gender & Equity Symposium, we are “practicing the equity that we preach.” We have created numerous opportunities for students, faculty and staff to engage with topics on diversity, inclusion, and equity on NC State’s campus, throughout the state and nationally. We continue to seek ways to not just talk about these issues, but we also find ways to incorporate this in various aspects of the work that we do. Whether that be through our website, working with program directors to make sure these issues are on the tops of their minds as they prepare our students to study abroad, or during our site visits with our partner institutions to learn, understand and share best practices that have been implemented in their universities and what we are implementing here. The Study Abroad Office has a strong commitment to doing this work. We all look forward to continuing these efforts and supporting all students, staff and faculty from diverse backgrounds.  

Keith: As a newer member of the Office of Global Engagement, it’s been refreshing to see so much good work already being done around increasing access to education abroad for more students. There’s also a lot of support within our office for professional development related to diversity and inclusion; for instance, I recently presented at the Diversity Abroad Annual Conference in Boston, and Kory is heavily involved in Diversity Abroad’s Task Force on Race and Ethnicity. We’ve got a lot of momentum thanks to the hard work and contributions of a lot of folks at NC State, and I’m excited to continue to work collaboratively to keep moving the needle in the right direction.

Learn more about the Study Abroad Office’s identity-based resources and listen to the full webinar.