To diversify study abroad, we must decolonize it

February 23rd, 2022   |   School for International Training

This post is a adapted from an excerpt of the forthcoming book Voices from the South: Decolonial Perspectives in International Education (2022, A. Rizzotti & H. Cruz-Feliciano, editors), published by The Forum on Education Abroad, and reprinted here with permission. Visit The Forum’s website to request more information on this and other titles in the series.

By Dr. Cheikh Thiam and Hannah Sorila

SIT Academic Dean
Dr. Cheikh Thiam

Only by deeply restructuring western study abroad will we increase diversity, equity, and inclusion on predominantly white programs, according to SIT Academic Dean Dr. Cheikh Thiam.

Thiam is co-author of “White Supremacy, Global Education, and Decolonial Futures,” a penetrating critique of western study abroad. The chapter is co-written by Hannah Sorila, who previously worked with SIT Study Abroad and currently works in youth programming.

Hannah Sorila

“A decolonial approach to global education is essential in order to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and the oppressive systems that perpetuate the need to focus on DEI,” they write.

Lack of access and inclusion are not what’s causing homogenous programs, they argue. The real problem is “the pervasiveness of coloniality and its corollary, the disenfranchisement of minority and underrepresented groups. It is for this reason that the student demographic has remained fairly homogenous over the years, despite institutions of higher education’s growing interest and engagement with diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Global education has the potential of creating spaces for learners to reimagine what is possible beyond these systems, including a deep sense of worth, belonging, and respect for the self and community.

To change this dynamic, Thiam and Sorila call for study abroad programs that center a decolonial framework. In 11 specific action steps, they lay out ways international educators can work toward incremental but meaningful change in the study abroad sector.

“When we begin to approach education as a collective and shared learning experience, one that embraces global empathy and humility, we work to re-humanize ourselves, our communities, and our ways of living that are currently dehumanized by the systems of oppression that influence not only education, but all aspects of life.

"Global education has the potential of creating spaces for learners to reimagine what is possible beyond these systems, including a deep sense of worth, belonging, and respect for the self and community.”

Fifteen young people smile toward the camera. All appear to be white.
In 2019-20, 70 percent of U.S. students who studied abroad were Caucasian, according to one study.

Following are excerpts from the action steps included in the chapter:

Identify and acknowledge the oppressive systems that are pervasive in global education.

Name, acknowledge, and work toward gaining a deeper understanding of coloniality, white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and racism, etc. in study abroad.

Redefine global education.

Reflect on what global education means within the work you do at your institution. How are you working to serve your students? What are your goals? What methods can help achieve those goals? If, for example, increasing intercultural competency or gaining a global perspective are your goals, is study abroad (the physical act of traveling to a new destination) the only means to the end? How else can those goals be achieved? Define the purpose of global education at your institution and let that define your work.

Consider shifting the power to local experts and communities to determine the curriculum and learning outcomes, or develop methods to collaborate so that the local voices can be centered.

Deconstruct your curriculum and attachment to learning outcomes.

Look holistically at the curriculum being developed and supported through global education at your institution. Whose voices and perspectives are being heard? Whose voices and perspectives are missing? Who do you have in mind when you design new programs?

Through this deconstruction, diversify the perspectives, voices, and opportunities for collective learning through an intersectional lens. Consider shifting the power to local experts and communities to determine the curriculum and learning outcomes, or develop methods to collaborate so that the local voices can be centered.

Deconstruct your idea of a classroom

Study abroad in particular, and global education as a whole, present unique opportunities for an expansive approach to a classroom. It is a good practice to embrace challenging your idea of a “traditional” classroom. How can study abroad expand opportunities for learning? Does learning need to be limited by a certain kind of modality? These are great questions to ask yourself, your team, and your senior leadership. Understanding these perspectives may inform why decisions are made the way they are, and where there may be room for change.

Hire local teams and apply local pedagogy.

We have the opportunity to shift the power in global education to include, center, and amplify local communities in deciding what the classroom should look like and what the curriculum should include on study abroad programs even if/when it is at odds with western higher education.

If we want our students to engage with global perspectives, let’s ensure we are not replicating a western perspective in a new location.

(Re)distribute wealth to the communities that make study abroad possible.

Be intentional with the funds spent on study abroad programs. Support locally owned businesses, organizations, restaurants, and cultural activities. Furthermore, by directing part of the profits generated by global education to local communities, studying abroad can be an even more intentional way of supporting the local globally.

Prioritize the health, safety, and perspective of the local communities.

Local communities should be prioritized over student learning, the operation of study abroad, and profitization of global education. Establish strong relationships with your partners around the world and create open lines of communication that are not centered around profit. Giving your partners the space to express their expertise and perspective is essential to creating a reciprocal partnership, and therefore ethical programming.

Develop intentional community engagement.

Integrate local and international students into study abroad programming—even short-term and faculty-led opportunities. This makes programs more global by including various perspectives and backgrounds within the learner-cohort. In order for this to be successful for all participants, the curriculum must also be diversified and decolonial.

Revamp pre-departure support, orientation, and trainings.

Integrate education, discussions, and reflection on white supremacy, coloniality and colonization, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, etc. into pre-departure student support. This offers students the opportunity to think more critically about their experience and to learn and unlearn some of their assumptions, expectations, and cultural behavior before studying abroad. This is not only helpful for student learning and success, but it also helps protect the local communities students travel to as these communities should not be a mere learning opportunity for students to make mistakes as they unlearn their potential problematic behaviour.

Create a feedback loop for students, staff, faculty, and local communities/partners.

Opening feedback loops for participants, staff/faculty, or local communities and partners to share their experiences and perspectives on how things can be done better encourages all stakeholders to be part of this process. Empowering local communities to give their feedback is particularly essential. It is equally essential to learn to listen, reflect on, and integrate this feedback as we move forward.

Continue to deepen our knowledge and understanding of decoloniality.

Your voice holds power – speak up when you can, even if it feels scary. There is power in numbers! Find a community within global education and within your institution/organization who may be able to support you in your efforts to create change, as well as hold you and your institution/organization accountable. There is vulnerability in sharing a learning process, but there is power in showing others that change is possible. Share what you learn within and outside of your institution. This process does not have to be done alone. In fact, this process cannot be done alone. Our collective unlearning and learning through a decolonial framework has the power to create systemic and sustainable change.