It’s the middle of August, which means summer is winding down and some of y’all are getting ready to head back to campus. This means new roommates, new dorm, new classes and the stark reminder of how much campus dining pales to your parents’ home cooking. Not to mention missing free laundry.
But for some, the year has you looking forward to one of the best undergrad opportunities: study abroad.
For a semester or two, you’ll live in another country, meet some great people, try a new cuisine, maybe learn a new language and get the lowdown on the underground music scene on another side of the ocean.
You might even learn about yourself.
Studying abroad was my college highlight. So much so I did it twice!
But here’s the thing: Studying abroad is great, but studying abroad while black is different.
I definitely recommend going to your school’s information sessions, but if you go to a PWI, they’re useful but they’re not always for you.
Here are five things I found useful to remember for studying abroad while black:
Reach out to organizations and community to pay for it.
Studying abroad is expensive when you consider round trip international plane tickets, visas, and potentially loans (which should only be used as a last resort). Consider applying to scholarships for your program through university partnerships with IES, CIEE, and SIT, as well as prestigious awards like the Gilman International Scholarship and the Boren Award for International Study. Also don’t leave out the possibilities of Kickstarter and GoFundMe, and give back by sharing all of the things you learned while you were away with those who helped get you there.
Research who can do your hair (or stock up on Shea Moisture products).
Black hair requires care and you should never underestimate how much people don’t know about it. I only studied abroad in African countries (Malawi and Ghana, with a side trip to Egypt), and while that meant that it was much easier to get my hair braided, it was not any easier to wear my hair out naturally. Despite being in the mother land, it’s not always very common to have an afro, and the products you use here in the US probably aren’t going to be accessible. Stock up on the hair products you need — scout out those Shea Moisture sales — and make room for all of it in your luggage.
Racism happens and it can be the same.
The fact is that only five percent of Americans who study abroad are black. This means that when you’re with other study abroad students, it’s very likely you’re going to be one of the few black people and/or people of color. And so you’ll probably be subjected to old microaggressions with a new twist. For me, I had to hear white students say things like, “So this is what it feels like to be a minority,” to which I responded:
Racism happens and it can be different.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from studying abroad is that the way I experience being black in the US is not going to be the same in other places. Journalist Terrell J. Starr wrote an essay for The Washington Post about these kinds of experiences during his Fulbright tenure in the Ukraine. For me, as a black person studying abroad in countries full of other black people, I had to interrogate how my American-ness complicated how I was black and a woman, the kinds of mobility I had access to, and how I, at times, could take that for granted. I asked questions and was asked questions, and did a lot of listening, which offered really necessary conversations for me about diaspora, becoming more aware of the legacy of African colonialism and learning how slavery is understood and memorialized differently on both sides of the Atlantic.
Let yourself let go.
When we talk about study abroad, we have to understand that it comes from a legacy of Eurocentric ideas and imperialist tropes of “the first encounter.” We don’t fit that as black people because one of racism’s tenets is that we’re not supposed to be able to be mobile. We don’t encounter; we’re encountered. Studying abroad, whether we believe it or not, is a radical act, and one that we have the most to benefit from. In times when we are bombarded with reminders of our disposability in this country, study abroad puts the United States’ particular racial violence into perspective. What we experience here is not natural, and we, as black people, aren’t bound to it. Studying abroad reminds us of our fundamental human right to be free, and I think it’s important to make sure you allow yourself the space to break down walls, some you didn’t even know you had. It’s good for you and it’s good for the community you’re building with people beyond US borders.
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