What’s keeping black students from studying abroad?

Ah, Paris.
Ah, Paris.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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Here’s one statistic about racial disparity that you most likely haven’t heard too much about: Only about 5% of Americans who study abroad are black, according to the Institute of International Education. This is a gap that’s especially dizzying considering the fact that more black students are in higher education than ever before.

How big of a problem is this, really?

Not only does this lack of travel translate into a dearth of black people in international careers and leadership positions (for instance, within the State Department there are few black Americans in top diplomatic posts and thus few who grapple with pressing foreign-policy issues), but it also means missed opportunities for a community that’s poised to benefit the most from them.

In terms of economics and cultural enrichment, black people perhaps stand to gain the most from education abroad. Bloomberg released a report last year that shows that student loans aren’t color blind. In comparison to other racial groups, black students are both more likely to look to student loans to foot their education bill—and less likely to pay off these debts later. Gaining a top-shelf education abroad, where college is typically cheaper (consider Germany, where universities have stopped charging tuition fees), could alleviate this financial weight and potentially allow some students to pursue advanced degrees without taking on crippling debt.

Losing out on cultural interaction abroad could also mean losing out on job prospects and other benefits. And these missed opportunities don’t just harm individuals—they also rob society of social capital. If traveling abroad breeds cosmopolitanism even in the broadest sense, then everyone’s better off if black people contribute to this shared aim, too.

The grim reality of this 5% problem is that black students are being excluded from an opportunity to gain important perspective, according to Zim Ugochukwu, the 26-year-old creator of Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform that “creates tools and resources for the unconventional traveler.” Ugochukwu is a young entrepreneur and the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants to America. She has said that she was inspired to start the platform after meeting people of color who were dubious about the practicality of traveling abroad, and worried about what an experience beyond America’s borders might entail for a different sort of globetrotter.

Ugochukwu founded Travel Noire in 2013, and she’s at the vanguard of what’s coming to be known as the black-travel movement. This burgeoning movement might be just what’s needed to spark a different mindset among black Americans, because, in Ugochukwu’s words, “when you see somebody who looks like you doing something you never thought you could do, then that thing becomes possible.”

Plus, there’s what some might call the mental freedom of traveling, whereby it’s possible to experience being “black” without paying the heavy mental tax that race demands in America. “As a black traveler, I seek liberation through exploration and find myself seeming freer, at least in mind and heart, on the road than at home,” Farai Chideya recently wrote for The New York Times. Traveling while black, to put it plainly, shows everyone that skin color shouldn’t be so divisive. This shouldn’t imply that race is only an issue for black Americans at home. But abroad, away from rooted defensiveness, racial differences often play out in such a way that they create empathy, not alienation.

All of this is to say that it isn’t hard to see how racially-based travel disparities represents a problem for individuals. But less clear-cut is that when disparities exist, it’s also a problem for our entire society—this denies valuable experience to individuals who could potentially contribute society’s best ideas, skills, and talents.

So, how might the country move closer to extinguishing this disparity?

One obstacle to tackle is accessibility. Going abroad is typically seen as belonging only to those who have the financial means to do so—and to an extent, this is true. Plane tickets and hostels alone can carry pretty hefty price tags. Fortunately, there are many programs that try to surmount financial hurdles for minorities, including the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship and the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program—the latter of which is run in collaboration with Howard University, a historically black college. Programs like these are key, but throwing money at black students in colleges won’t vanquish another fundamental problem.

What’s also needed is a perception shift. For many black Americans, the lack of other black Americans who travel abroad can produce a paralyzing disincentive to go—because beyond financial hurdles, which are steep, there’s a pipeline problem, too. Fueling a desire to go abroad and stressing the added value of doing so must start early, in communities and schools, and must be leveraged by mentors. If not, then programs that—at least in word—prize cultural diversity can be stripped of their power. (Take my Fulbright cohort, which only had two black Americans out of over 100 participants.) In other words, it’s important to have an eye toward creating a more holistic institutional approach.

For this unconventional traveler, picking up and moving to different places has yielded valuable insights—from a subconscious realization that black Americans can, as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton pointed out, play a critical role in telling America’s story—to a measured articulation that, for blacks, love of country is indeed complicated. But most of all, traveling has proven to me that there’s simply too much to be gained on the road for me to stay home.

This article appeared in The Weekly Wonk, New America’s weekly e-magazine.