Knowledge Application

Underrepresentation in Education Abroad Programming

Significant strides have been made in making college more accessible to a broader cross-section of the population in the U.S.  For example, from 1995 to 2005 the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities enrolled in post-secondary education rose from 25.3% to 30.9% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).  Even with more minority students enrolled in college, though, their participation in international exchange has not changed significantly over the last decade.  In 2000, 15.7% of study abroad students were racial and ethnic minorities and in 2010 that percentage was 21.4% (Institute for International Education [IIE], 2010).  The proportion of minority students who select to study abroad has remained stable even as the overall number of U.S. college students studying abroad increased by roughly 150% over the same period of time (IIE, 2010).  However, the study abroad arena still does not reflect the diversity of the U.S. population; the lack of participation in study abroad and internationally focused activities of all young people poses a challenge to post-graduation career opportunities and options.  Recent graduates enter a job market that requires them to be able to interact with people of different cultures, understand complex international systems, and possibly speak languages other than English (Belyavina & Bhandari, 2011).  With only 12% of all four-year college students studying abroad and few taking advanced level language classes (IIE, 2010; Klein & Rice, 2012), many students will leave college with little preparation to compete for an increasing number of internationally focused jobs.

Klein and Rice (2012) argue that fewer opportunities to engage in language and international study ill prepare U.S. youth to enter a workforce increasingly global in nature.  Participation in internationally focused activities – language study, study abroad, internationally focused coursework – is important to all young people as they complete college and move into their careers.  Over the last decade, research has shown an increase in young peoples’ decisions to enter careers with a global focus (Mohajeri Norris & Gillespie, 2009).  Influencing this decision, participation in study abroad has been linked enhanced cultural competence, language acquisition and a broader understanding of international systems (Gerner & Perry, 2000; Hayward & Siaya, 2001; Hembroff, & Rusz, 1993; McLellan, 2011; Shah, Pell, & Brooke, 2004; 2009; Uber, 2004).  Thus, study abroad has the potential to improve students’ career options after graduation.  The challenge remains, however, to identify ways to get more students across the board interested in engaging in such activities.

For minority students specifically, studies have found that racial and ethnic minority high school students express interest in learning more about world cultures and language when in high school to a greater degree than their non-minority peers.  A study by the MetLife Foundation representing more than 2,000 public school students in grades 6-12 found that 76% of all students were interested in learning more about world cultures.  In addition, Hispanic and African-American students were more likely than their white counterparts to say that it is important to study other languages to understand other nations and cultures (Markow & Pierters, 2011).  McLellan (2011) cited similar evidence in a separate study finding three-quarters of high school students reported being interested in learning more about the world and world cultures.  These findings indicate that something else is happening between graduating from high school and entering college that may prevent students from pursuing activities like study abroad.

These findings appear to run counter to some reports that suggest, among other concerns, racial and ethnic minority students choose not to pursue study abroad because they may perceive that studying abroad is not important (McLellan, 2011; Salisbury, Paulsen, & Pascarella, 2011).  Salisbury, Paulsen, and Pascarella (2011) point out, however, that “there is little indication of the degree to which these responses [are] evidence of an active barrier to participation or a retroactive justification for the decision not to participate” (p. 121).  Therefore, it is yet unclear what factors may affect racial and ethnic minority students’ intent to study abroad and more research must be done to clarify what factors influence these students to go abroad.

In addition to documenting students’ interests in learning about the world and its cultures, there is a growing body of research that suggests that students who come into college with an established interest in international issues are much more likely to study abroad than those that come in with little interest or knowledge of international issues (Goldstein & Kim, 2006).  In one longitudinal study Goldstein and Kim (2006) surveyed students as freshmen and again as seniors and found that those students who scored higher on an assessment of their study abroad expectations during their freshman year were significantly more likely to have studied abroad at a later point during their college career.  This supports the notion that college may be too late to connect students, particularly racial and ethnic minority students, with information about international activities such as study abroad (McLellan, 2011). The research also indicates that many of their experiences in high school and middle school may have a larger impact on their decision to participate in international activities in college.

Social Capital and Career Development

Salisbury et al. (2011) expanded on this idea and even suggested that the quality of a young persons’ social capital (i.e. experience, networks, previous knowledge) influences their likelihood to engage in internationally focused activities like study abroad.  “Social capital encapsulates the access to information through networks, support systems, and knowledgeable persons that can improve an individual’s ability to investigate, navigate, and choose advantageous options or opportunities” (Salisbury et al., 2011, p. 126).  In other words, young people who do not know others who have engaged in internationally focused activities or do not have the support from their immediate network of family and friends to pursue such activities may be much less likely to explore such opportunities.  A large part of social capital as it relates to study abroad specifically is also intrinsically tied to a student’s socioeconomic status and access to resources and information (Makela & Suutari, 2009; Murray & Fry, 2012; Norfles, 2003; Obst, Bhandari, & Witherell, 2007; Penn & Tanner, 2009).

Literature related to career choice and orientation goes on to confirm the role that social capital plays in informing professional aspirations.  Jung and McCormick (2012) found links between occupational decisions in adolescents and social influences from the family.  Van Hooft, Born, Taris, and Van der Flier (2006) also highlight the issue of social influences in career choices.  A young person’s formative life experiences, relationships, and academic training are areas that could influence her/his likelihood of entering a particular profession or field.

This also appears to be the case with internationally oriented careers.  In a study looking at the experiences of twelve young people interning at an internationally-focused organization, Mather (2008) found five areas that shaped the participants’ career interests: academics and intellectual curiosity, travel abroad, religion, relationships—with family, friends, and mentors—and transformative life events.  Similarly, Van Hooft, et. al (2006) found that the theory of reasoned action (TRA) – a persons’ intention to apply to a job –provides a framework to describe job application decisions, which are similar to students application decisions regarding non-academic activities during college.  The authors found that job attractiveness and perceived person–organization fit added to the likelihood of job application intention.  In other words, if a student is able to see herself/himself fitting into an opportunity, such as study abroad, they are more likely to pursue that option.  If students cannot see themselves participating in study abroad, they are less likely to perceive it as a viable option during their college career.

The discussion about what factors may influence young racial and ethnic minorities to seek out international opportunities and careers has also piqued the interest of practitioners and hiring managers from internationally focused firms and organizations.  These individuals have lamented the lack of participation of underrepresented groups in professional careers in the international arena (Belyavina & Bhandari, 2011).  With more research suggesting that exposure to international opportunities earlier on increases the likelihood that college graduates will enter the field of international affairs (Gullatt & Jan, 2003; Mohajeri Norri & Gillespie, 2009; Uber Grosse, 2004), it is no wonder that employers are entering the discourse on how to encourage more racial and ethnic minority students to gain international experience.  Representing the end of the pipeline, firms such as the World Bank, Interaction, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Department of State, and others are collaborating with groups like Global Kids, One World Now, the Ron Brown Scholar Program, the Posse Foundation, and others with the intent of developing a pipeline of diversity initiatives beginning at the K-16 level and going through to senior-level career advancement programs (Belyavina & Bhandari, 2011; Global Access Pipeline [GAP], 2011).  By entering into the discussion about how to diversify this pipeline, employers recognize the importance of racial and ethnic minority students’ pre-collegiate experiences and networks as factors that influence the likelihood that they will eventually explore career fields that are internationally focused (Belyavina & Bhandari, 2011).

Motivation and College Enrollment

Though the research on the career benefits of study abroad has grown, few studies look at students’ goals for pursuing higher education and how to integrate study abroad into their overall goals.  However, looking at literature focused on lower socioeconomic racial and ethnic minority students’ decisions to attend college it appears that many of these young people point to reasons of interdependence (i.e. interest in improving conditions for family) and job prospects after graduation as primary reasons for going to college (Phinney, Dennis, & Chuateco, 2005; Phinney, Dennis, & Osorio, 2006).  Phinney et al. (2005) discuss that issues related to students’ persistence to finish college may have a strong connection to the students’ motivation for attending college in the first place.  Minority students face persistent challenges to completing college, potentially interfering with their pursuit of activities outside of the university setting.

It may be that for low and medium SES students, personal development is strongly associated with a desire to improve one’s lot in life, for example by moving to a higher SES.  Students like these, the majority of whom have parents who did not attend college, may have less opportunity than students from higher SES backgrounds to use college primarily as an opportunity for personal development without also considering how one’s interests could lead to good jobs (Phinney et al., 2005).

In some ways the findings from Phinney et al. (2005) demonstrate that students from minority and low socioeconomic background have different reasons for attending college than their more affluent peers, especially as it relates to professional and personal career-related motivation.  These findings also show that students from lower socioeconomic groups may not see study abroad as working in line with these goals and will thus be less likely to look at it as a real option during college.  The possible disconnect then may be that the goals students from low socioeconomic groups hold upon entering college do not include activities such as study abroad.  For this reason, exploring literature that discusses racial and ethnic minority students’ reasons for attending college is one way to begin to explore why minority students may or may not consider pursuing study abroad during college.

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