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A student takes the lead in increasing diversity in study abroad

  • Diversity abroad:
    Diversity abroad:  (left to right) Nasha Lewis, Molly DeStafney and Arielle Hankerson at the Global Education Office's Peer Advising Desk at the Reves Center.  Photo by Rachel Sims
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The following story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of World Minded - Ed.

Study abroad is a transformational experience that can and should be accessible to everyone, and yet students of ethnic and racial minority backgrounds, first-generation college students, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students in STEM programs have traditionally made up only a small percentage of students taking advantage of global opportunities. The obstacles can seem unsurmountable:

  • “No one in my family has ever traveled outside the United States. How could I?”
  • “I could never afford it.”
  • “I’m a science major. Studying abroad will keep me from filling my requirements and graduating on time.”
  • “It’s too complicated to find the right program, much less make it through the application process."

These assumptions are some of the biggest challenges for a Global Education Office trying to increase the number and diversity of students studying abroad. Nasha Lewis, assistant director for global education, has spearheaded study abroad outreach since she was hired in 2015.

Lewis has not only the professional and educational background for the job, but also — and perhaps even more importantly — firsthand experience with the challenges that can prevent a student from pursuing a study abroad experience.

“I feel as if I can relate to students and some of their concerns and issues,” she said.

Lewis wanted to study abroad the summer after graduation, “but I got terrible and wrong advice” from a teacher, who said if she went abroad she’d have to delay graduation. It wasn’t true, but Lewis didn’t know that until it was too late. Lewis didn’t give up an international experience; she joined the Peace Corps and served in Mali. Still, it taught her the importance of reaching out personally and individually to students, giving them access to good information, and information from their peers who can speak from actual experience. Lewis worries about reaching as many students as possible.

“I don’t want to fail the STEM students or the low-income students who may have average grades and assume they’re not ‘noteworthy’ enough to be able to get funding,” she said.

And so she visits classrooms, hosts events and reaches out in print, electronically and personally to engage and encourage traditionally underrepresented students.

This past year, she had some extra help from a dynamic and extraordinary young woman, Arielle Hankerson ’17, who also faced obstacles but persisted and resolved to share her experiences to help other students have a successful study abroad experience.

An early start

Hankerson, who grew up in Virginia Beach, is the middle child of seven children and the first in her family to study abroad.

She attended Tallwood High School Global Studies and World Languages Academy, a public school that aims to provide opportunities to develop the skills needed to make global connections across disciplines. Geography is integrated into every course, and the curriculum follows three major themes: global issues, global systems and global cultures. Students must study two languages, and Hankerson studied three — Spanish, Latin and Arabic. She also participated in two exchanges, to Indonesia (14 days) and Denmark (10 days).

Even with Hankerson’s global experience, curiosity and enthusiasm, she knew that in college she would face some hurdles. However, Hankerson also knew where to go for guidance: “William & Mary has such a strong Global Education Office.”

One-on-one help to find the best fit

Finances were an important consideration. Hankerson met with Molly DeStafney, associate director of global programs, and learned that W&M study-abroad programs would accept her financial aid. First hurdle cleared. The next task was to choose a program. Hankerson had designed her own major — Inner City Development, with a minor in Public Health — and was mindful of fulfilling her requirements.

“I knew I wanted to study abroad when I entered William & Mary,” Hankerson remembers, “But I didn’t want to miss a whole semester.”

Her solution? Find a shorter-term program, preferably over the summer.Another hurdle cleared.

Hankerson went to GEO’s Study Abroad Summer Open House where there are representatives and veterans of the various programs as well as peer advisors, trained by GEO staff to explain the options and processes.

At third grade summer camp she learned about Australia, and ever since had wanted to go there. When she learned about the W&M program in Adelaide, she figured it was fate, especially since it was being offered for the first time in a number of years. Even better, the program was led by Associate Professor of Psychology Chris Ball and included a psychology class that would contribute toward her minor.

Hankerson went to Adelaide in 2015, the summer between her sophomore and junior years. In addition to examining national stereotypes in the media she participated in some community engagement projects that led to a volunteer position with the Wilderness Society, planning the Students of Sustainability Conference and helping with social media.

As Hankerson cleared hurdles on her own behalf, she realized that she had the experience to help other students facing their own challenges. If there were students talking themselves and their friends out of studying abroad, then couldn’t students talk other students into it?  

Sharing experiences and lessons learned

Hankerson applied to be a Diversity Abroad Campus Fellow, which she learned about in an email from the Reves Center.

Founded in 2006 and based in Berkeley, California, Diversity Abroad is the leading international organization working to ensure that students from diverse economic, educational, ethnic and social backgrounds have equal access and take advantage of the benefits and opportunities afforded through global education exchanges.

Sylvia Mitterndorfer, director of global education, has made increasing diversity a priority at GEO. She initiated membership in the Diversity Network to support the organization and to learn about best practices. DeStafney represented W&M at the organization’s first national conference in 2013.

“It was one of the best conferences that I’ve been to professionally,” DeStafney recalls. “Everyone there was committed to the mission of diversifying international education, and it was a time to collect ideas that worked at other schools and have a dialogue about the challenges in attempting to create access across the board.”

The diversity abroad campus

Fellows Program is a nine-month program open only to students enrolled at Diversity Network member institutions. It gives study abroad alumni the opportunity to motivate their peers on campus. Responsibilities include representing Diversity Abroad on campus and campuses in the community; connecting students with resources and collecting information for follow-up; and identifying and creating partnership opportunities on campus.

The qualities they look for include: being personable and actively involved on campus; being able to relate to diverse groups of various backgrounds; being passionate about making an impact on campus with international opportunities; and having an entrepreneurial spirit. Hankerson submitted her application and was overseas when she was contacted.

“I got the initial email [from Diversity Abroad] while in Ghana as a field representative for an organization called Saha Global. We worked to provide clean water through women’s entrepreneurship and community engagement,” recalls Hankerson. “They graciously postponed the interview until I was back in the states.”

Trixie Cordova, associate director at Diversity Abroad, oversees the Campus Fellows Program, and worked closely with Hankerson as her mentor.

“More than 50 students submitted applications for the 2016-17 Campus Fellows program, and ultimately six students were selected across the country,” says Cordova. “We had never had a Campus Fellow based at William & Mary, so Arielle was the first one!”

Cordova has one-on-one calls with the fellows twice a month. “There are definitely a lot of conversations to problem solve when outreach isn’t working successfully, or to brainstorm other creative solutions to get the word out about Diversity Abroad,” Cordova said.

“My role is to help students on my campus know that they can study abroad regardless of income, gender, or anything else,” said Hankerson about her mission as Campus Fellow at W&M. “Study abroad is no longer an option [for today’s student to be successful]; it’s a requirement.”

Combining Forces with GEO

Hankerson had already reached out to Lewis even before Diversity Abroad notified Lewis in August 2016 that Hankerson had been selected.

Hankerson’s key partner would be GEO, and Lewis saw the Campus Fellow role as different from that of a student worker or GEO Peer Advisor.

“It was Arielle’s inspiration to apply, and she had her own ideas,” explains Lewis. “We came up with a timeline together, but her ideas were driven by her, and we were careful not to duplicate efforts.”

Lewis began by giving an overview of Reves and GEO and the climate on campus.

“William & Mary is different from other universities and has a unique advantage,” Lewis explained. “The push for internationalization is embraced all across campus and motivated by the administration, faculty, staff and students.”

W&M also has a quality that is  both an advantage and disadvantage: Students take academics seriously and are very motivated, but that means they have limited free time.

“It’s best to get things early in the semester when students are still gung-ho, because after midterms, students are focused on studying and it’s hard to find time and interest,” Lewis cautions.

One of Hankerson’s events on campus was a panel discussion — Diversity in International Experiences — that ended up occurring unavoidably in November, late in the semester. Although the conversation among faculty and students was informative, there wasn’t a large turnout, which was a disappointment.  

“I would have liked to have hosted more events, but it’s challenging,” Hankerson observes. “How do you engage with an audience that doesn’t want to be engaged?”

For Lewis, that’s an important lesson. “There is no magic bullet, and it’s great that she’s learned that now,” Lewis notes. “It really takes a year to understand the role of increasing outreach & diversity and getting a vision for a new position.”

To that end, Hankerson wishes in some ways she could continue as a fellow, to apply the knowledge she’s acquired. She would like to work more with the Center for Student Diversity, and has ideas about addressing the challenges of the new COLL 300 curriculum, as more students will  consider studying abroad to fulfill the cross-cultural experience requirement.

When asked about her successes as a fellow, Hankerson lights up talking about a friend from the International Relations Club who is currently on W&M’s Seville program. They first met when she came as a prospective student and stayed in Hankerson’s dorm.

Hankerson remembers: “She wanted to study abroad for a semester but wasn’t sure she could afford it. I sent her to Nasha, and she had appointments with GEO staff and peer advisors to find funding. She ended up receiving scholarship money. Having someone to help figure out things is essential.”

Although Hankerson focuses on the work that still needs to be done, Diversity Abroad has no doubts about her impact: “Arielle is a very thoughtful leader.,” exclaims Cordova. “No matter what she does next or where she goes, she’ll be incredible."