Speaking on what it means to be a person of color abroad, the University of Michigan's Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs hosted a talk Thursday night in North Quad Residence Hall featuring a diverse group of panelists who provided anecdotal stories of how their race shaped their experiences both studying and serving abroad. About 50 students and faculty members were in attendance at the event, which was also sponsored by the International Center, Spectrum Center and the Center for Global and Intercultural Study.
The talk focused on students of color experiences abroad and highlighted the small percentage of students of color who study abroad compared to 71.6 percent of white students. Though the proportion of students from underrepresented backgrounds has reportedly lagged in these programs, there has been a noted 15 percent increase in students of color studying abroad, with the University ranking sixth in the largest population of students who study abroad.
Many of the panelists expressed how much they cherished their experiences abroad, while still speaking frankly about the challenges they faced.
LSA sophomore Amira Mandwee said studying abroad was an opportunity for her to discover the world and learn about new cultures. Growing up, her family didn’t possess the means for travel, so she jumped at the opportunity to travel through the University and satisfy her childhood yearning to explore.
“I’ve wanted to study abroad since I was young since family vacations weren’t a thing,” Mandwee said. “I grew up first-generation and being around many other first-generations, so I wanted to amplify those experiences.”
Marcus Hall, a graduate student in the Ford School of Public Policy and the School of Information, echoed Mandwee’s sentiments, saying while he didn’t have the financial resources to travel, he was constantly around different cultures, which only drove his desire to go abroad.
“Coming from a lower-income background and first-generation, I never thought that going abroad was feasible, but because I was always surrounded by people who came from many international backgrounds, I always found myself in international spaces,” Hall said.
Though many of the panelists conveyed their initial excitement of studying abroad, and how their experience overall was incredibly positive and life-changing, Business senior Akshay Chhajed revealed how specific racist instances made him feel uncomfortable while he was volunteering with refugees in Greece.
“People would stare dumbfounded, that I could speak Greek (as someone of South Asian descent),” Chhajed said.
LSA sophomore Brandon Bond also shared similar experiences of receiving odd looks abroad but said the culture he visited was welcoming and interested in his culture as well.
“In Barcelona, being Black was more noticeable,” Bond said. “I got weird stares. But in Mexico, people were intrigued by students of color, and were interested in who we were.”
According to LSA sophomore Nyla Hart, the panelists’ stories resonated with her and served to both ease anxiety about her upcoming study abroad trip and brought her attention to issues she may encounter.
“As a person of color going to study abroad, this was very relevant and I wanted to hear their experiences and know what to prepare for,” Hart said. “Peru has people of color, but it’s a very conservative country. I am worried about having to articulate that I am Black and American, but it will be a teaching moment.”
LSA sophomore Jamaica Jordan said the panel eased some of her worries about racism abroad.
“I was worried after hearing their experiences with racism, but after they talked about their experiences some more, I was back to feeling fine,” Jordan said.
The talk ended with words of encouragement for audience members to find their own study abroad programs and experiences. Students like Social Work student Lauren emphasized that even though it may be difficult in the beginning, it will be worthwhile at the end.
“Go in with no expectations, let things unfold, and be creative,” Birks said.