Studying Abroad as a Student of Color

I’ve said this once, and I’ve said it again; studying abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, a question pops up in my mind every once in a while, both prior to coming here, as well as during this entire summer – is studying abroad REALLY for everyone? For people of color, this question is much more prevalent, and it’s something that needs to be talked about more.

Less than 30% of students studying abroad are people of color, and only a little over 6% of students are Black. In my head I was always preprogrammed to thinking, “Well, with such a big group of students studying abroad, these small percentages will be much bigger than I think”, however, similar to my disappointments when thinking that as I entered a PWI, that number here felt much more like 0%. The reality is, going abroad (ESPECIALLY in Europe) you’re facing the possibility of discrimination, and that is a choice that isn’t easy to make (one of the main things that initially held me back from coming). Everywhere you look, people will always view you differently. You have to have this heightened awareness at all times, and at some point you don’t even know if it’s really worth going, or staying. Ultimately, as I went back and forth on taking this leap, I decided to go for it, and just hope for the best.

Expectations = Reality

Once I got to Sweden and Denmark, I immediately felt the homogeneity within the population. I am thankful to have not had any bad experiences during my time here (An issue within itself – feeling thankful that people didn’t say or do anything because the way that I look) however that isn’t the case for others. But there have been times where I was stared at, or just didn’t feel comfortable as I looked around and only saw white skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and that’s unavoidable. I constantly felt that have to be on my toes whenever I go anywhere, and be aware of my surroundings. It was overall a pleasant experience for me, but the feeling of being an outcast always was stuck in the back of my mind unfortunately.

  • Constantly keep in check with your feelings, and always do what’s best for YOU in every situation, no matter what
  • Set your boundaries with others – if someone says or does something that doesn’t sit right with you, let them know
  • Don’t be afraid to leave when feeling uncomfortable
  • Make time to talk to those back home, reconnect and let them know how you’re really doing
  • Always speak up about your experiences–someone will relate to you, understand you, listen to you, and will want to help you (not many, but someone)

I think another thing that isn’t talked about as much, is how closeted racism is in Europe. As an attempt to deny the racial hierarchy, places such as Sweden and Denmark have tendencies to lean towards colorblindness, to eliminate race as a whole (sweeping it under the rug). However, racism still exists, and by not having conversations about it have brought about even worse outcomes and opens the doors to racism coming about through denying people of job opportunities, housing, or things that are beyond an individuals own control. For immigrants and refugees, they face difficulties integrating into such a new culture, and though Scandinavia is said to be a “safe haven” for all, it’s only for those who are white. The far right is also very bad especially with racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. So the issue of being a person of color not only applies to us studying abroad, but for people who have lived the majority of their lives here. Conversations need to be had to know of these experiences, and it was really shocking to discover how bad it really could be.

Do Your Research

More needs to be done in order to give people of color everything they need to make a well-informed decision to go abroad. A flaw that many programs, schools, and other resources have is that the extent to which diversity will be discussed is just through saying “We’re trying to be as diverse and as inclusive as possible, but we will support you no matter what”. But in reality, this increased my stress and frustrated me. This support needs to be present at all times, especially before going on this journey, and I never had the answers that myself and others needed to hear. I found myself looking towards pieces and videos by other students of color to really give me the harsh truth that I needed to hear. It’s hard enough to have to do all the research of what to do, what to pack, and other small things, but having to search far and wide just to know how I should mentally prepare myself as I knew my own experience would be quite different than that of a white student was taking a toll on me weeks before arriving. I am glad that I took the time to do this, as I wasn’t as shocked once I got here, and it was more of a wondering how my experience would compare to the stories I’ve read. But the reality is that you won’t find that much diversity in Scandinavia, or in study abroad programs as a whole. Preparing yourself is the best thing to do, along with making your experiences heard so that future students can learn as well.

Just about 2 months ago, I was frantically preparing for the summer that lie ahead, and I had no idea what to expect. There have been so many high points which have been beyond incredible! With the highs however, there are some lows as well. Through adjustment comes difficult times, and I think both should be equally spoken and talked about. But through this experience, I was taught lessons not only in the classroom, but just through living on my own in a new country–much needed lessons that I will keep with me as I move forward with the rest of my life. I am thankful to have found a community of good people, and constantly was practicing self care to ensure that I am at the best place possible. No matter what you do, always make sure to put yourself first.

Resources at DIS:

Study Abroad This Summer with DIS:

One thought

  1. Dear Feven- Glad you made you thought known. Expect me to challenge your preparedness to study abroad before you left the home turf , Ohio/Michigan. This is a great experience which you can draw important lessons to be learned for you and others to come along that way.

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