July 16, 2021
Imani Thaniel’s travels outside the United States were a learning experience, both academically and personally. The Virginia Commonwealth University alum studied abroad in Greece in 2019 and later shared the challenges and joys of her travels as a Black female at VCU’s Black + Abroad series, sponsored by the university’s Global Education Office and Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.
The annual event, organized and hosted by VCU students who have participated in academic programs abroad and returned home, is normally held during Black History Month. The series started as a student-run initiative organized by former study abroad participants to share experiences traveling and studying abroad as students of color. It has evolved into a Black-focused series in collaboration with other Virginia higher education institutions.
“Black students have historically been underrepresented in study abroad participation. Far fewer Black students study abroad than their white counterparts," said Stephanie Tignor, director of Education Abroad in VCU’s Global Education Office. “The good news is that the gap is closing, though not at a rapid enough pace. Despite awareness of the disparities in study abroad participation rates among minority students, still not enough has been done to significantly increase the number of Black students studying abroad.”
The Black + Abroad series aims to shed light on these issues, Tignor said.
“It attempts to address them head-on by sharing the real life experiences of Black students who have studied abroad and who can speak from a firsthand perspective about what it is really like to be a Black American studying in another country so Black audience members could imagine themselves in these experiences and have less fear about embarking on a study abroad program in the future,” she said.
This past winter VCU partnered with Bridgewater College, Hollins University, Randolph-Macon College and Shenandoah University to host the series, which was open to the public and included a diverse audience of students and international education professionals at other colleges and universities. The collaboration took place through Virginia International Educators, a statewide organization. More than 1,000 faculty, staff and students from around the United States participated.
The virtual series was awarded the 2021 GoAbroad Innovation Award for Innovation in Diversity by GoAbroad.com. The award recognizes efforts to expand international educational opportunities to underrepresented groups.
“The series is a storytelling event,” said Sarah Carrier, academic advising coordinator for the VCU Global Education Office. “Alumni and current students talk to other students of color to encourage travel abroad. It is trying to close the gap between being Black and going abroad.”
In telling her own story of traveling to Athens to study at the American College of Greece for two months in 2019, Thaniel talked about being treated differently because she was Black and female. [View Image]Thaniel's views from the Greek island of Ydra, Greece. (Courtesy of Imani Thaniel)
“When you do have the experience of going oversees as a person of color, you realize people in other countries have certain stereotypes built in that they believe based on the American television shows they watch. I had to advocate for myself and tell them not everything Americans believed was the same thing I believed,” said Thaniel, who graduated in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree from the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and is now a seventh-grade English teacher in Alexandria, Virginia.
Her advice to current students is not to allow anyone “to make an assumption about you.”
“You have to represent yourself in a certain way — the light you want to be shown in,” Thaniel said. [View Image]Thaniel's views from the Greek island of Ydra, Greece. (Courtesy of Imani Thaniel)
Each session in the series included panel discussions featuring speakers who were past participants in study abroad programs. Panelists spoke about their experiences in different areas of the world, including Asia, Africa, Mexico and Spain.
“We all have different experiences but share a common theme — people of color who love to travel and learn abroad,” Thaniel said.
One reason she decided to participate in the series was that “you don’t often see people of color, especially Black students, traveling abroad because they have higher reservations and worries when faced with the option of studying abroad,” she said.
“This is to encourage them to study abroad. The experience of studying abroad will enlighten them.”
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