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Opening the Door to Study Abroad

Editor’s Note: Earlier versions of this article appeared in our print magazine, Accolades, and online. 

Nia Doaks says studying abroad was the best decision she’s made in college.

Sure, the NC State communication major was nervous before traveling to Peru for six weeks last summer; she had never been overseas.

However, by stepping out of her comfort zone and living with host families, Doaks learned about language and cultural traditions that are far different from her own, she said.

“I learned, for instance, that when you greet someone in Peru, you kiss them on the cheek,” Doaks said. “I would never have known little things like that if I had not gone abroad. Cultural competency is important in the job market, so if you have something like study abroad on your resume, I think it really helps.”

A new college pilot program aims to encourage more students from underrepresented groups, such as Doaks, to study abroad for the first time. Kickstarted by a $25,000 NC State University Foundation grant, the Travel Scholars pilot program will help some students pay for study abroad and will inform others about what resources are available.

By targeting underrepresented groups, organizers are adding to a growing effort across the nation to create a more diverse student profile abroad. Although the National Center for Education Statistics shows that nonwhite students make up nearly 40 percent of all college students in the United States, only 26 percent of the nearly 290,000 college students who study abroad each year are nonwhite, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2015 Open Doors report.

“We want to show students that study abroad is an investment in their future that’s going to pay off,” said Blair Kelley, the college’s assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs. “Knowing that the world has a lot more in common with you than it doesn’t is a powerful thing.”

Eight grants of up to $2,500 will be awarded to travel scholars from underrepresented groups, including first-generation students of any background. The program is also hosting a series of information sessions across campus. Students will hear from their peers about how study abroad enriched their education and get answers to questions about such topics as financial aid.

We want to show students that study abroad is an investment in their future that’s going to pay off. Knowing that the world has a lot more in common with you than it doesn’t is a powerful thing.

— Blair Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs

Paying for study abroad is one of the top concerns among students, Kelley said. Family obligations and a general cultural hesitancy to travel are other reasons students are sometimes hesitant, she said.

“They don’t have family-based experiences that let them know early on that study abroad is interesting and rewarding,” Kelley said. “We don’t want them to miss it because they didn’t know it was important.”

As part of the program, Kelley is tracking the reasons why such students are apprehensive about studying abroad. She is also charting how study abroad affects their learning. She said that data will help show why some student groups need more encouragement and how important study abroad is in their education.

“Study abroad changes your perception about lifestyle, politics and culture,” Kelley said. “And when students return, they have a broader outlook on the degree they are completing. We want all our students to have opportunities to experience that for themselves.”