HBCUs Must Take Lead on Study Abroad, Exchange Opportunities with African Nations
When Emma Lazarus penned the famous poem, The New Colossus, which reads in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me……….,” citizens of countries beyond Europe were little thought of, if at all. The pattern of immigration as we know it today bears little resemblance to immigration during Ms Lazarus’ era. Asians and post-colonial Spanish nationals have become the new face of post-modern Ellis Island. Those charged with the responsibility of crafting U.S. immigration policy, it could be argued, have actively pursued a policy of making sure that potential immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are kept at levels that could be considered ‘non-threatening,’ to the American status quo.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics support this claim as available statistics show that only Oceania and South America have fewer immigrants than Africa. Asia, Europe, and North America, which includes Central America and the Caribbean, have significantly more immigrants. As a subgroup of North America, even the Caribbean (137,098) outpaces Africa (105,915).
Although the U.S. Department of State has a very robust and dynamic international education policy, international students from Africa come up on the short end of this policy. Nigeria, ranked seventh on the list of most populous countries, is 20th on the list of countries of origin for international students studying in the United States (Open Doors, 2009). According to Open Doors data, South Africa is the only African country to make the list of top-25 destinations of American students who study abroad.
The State department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs is charged with, among other initiatives, the advancement of US Foreign Policy through academic exchange with targeted foreign countries and regions. Of the major Academic Exchange Program Offices at the Department of State, the Fulbright Program is the only one that embraces sub-Saharan African countries. The Edmund S. Muskie Program offers Graduate Fellowships to Eurasians to encourage economic and democratic growth. The Global Undergraduate Exchange Program, targets young scholars from East, Central, and South Asia, and Eurasia. The Junior Faculty Development Program embraces citizens from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and other countries in that region.
On the home front, African American students’ participation in study abroad is abysmal, as they account for a paltry 4 percent of the total number of American students who studied abroad in 2007-2008 (Open Doors, 2009). Even when compared to other minority groups, African Americans are found wanting, as Asians comprise 6.6 percent of those students studying overseas, and Hispanics 5.9 percent.
It is difficult to gauge the degree to which United States foreign policy should be blamed for the under-representation of African American students in the study abroad community. Whether this is because of a lack of adequate opportunities or simply disinterest among African Americans to engage in cross-border learning and scholarship cannot be accurately determined. However, what is certain is that DHS and the State Department have done little if anything to suggest that these groups are important to advancing America’s priorities vis-à-vis the global thrust in higher education. In the absence of empirical data that would help to levy definitive responsibility, the prevalence of anecdotal accounts given by prospective international students may at least amplify the concern. Prospective international students from Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, appear to have a less abrasive and invariably a more ‘positive’ experience with U.S. Embassy policies and consular officers than their African counterparts. For example, in some Caribbean countries non-immigrant student (F-1 visa) applicants are often times given priority consideration in scheduling visa interviews.
But that’s not the case in most Sub-Saharan African countries. Is it possible that the State Department’s policies are consistent throughout, but the reported difference in applicants depends on the whim of the Consul Generals and Consular Officers? Or is it that the State Department’s policies are unique to the population being served?
On the domestic front, there is enough blame to go around for the dismal participation rate of African Americans in study abroad. According to Elizabeth Reddin, author of “Study Abroad Isn’t Just for White Students,” the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of Education found that, “although African American students comprise 14 percent of postsecondary student enrollment, they make up only 3.4 percent of study abroad participants” (Open Doors, 2004) It is instructive to note that the majority of African American students who make up the 4 percent of the participation rate (2007-2008), attend predominantly white institutions.
Most of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities are notoriously comatose in the field of international education. With few exceptions, HBCUs relegate Study Abroad to the category of ‘non-essential’ academic undertakings; yet they will cite international education as important when articulating overall institutional mission.
The State Department needs to rethink its visa policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also take a close look at how its consular staff interacts with prospective students from this geographic region. Additionally, the State Department should commit more resources to the Gilman Scholarship Study Abroad program, and make deliberate attempts to reach out to HBCUs. Additionally, a program office should be established in the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs to promote academic exchange with Sub-Saharan African countries.
Presidents and CEOs of HBCUs and NAFEO must move their ‘commitment’ to study abroad and international education in general, from rhetoric and anecdotal posturing to meaningful and structured initiatives. HBCUs have the ear of the sitting President of the United States but I wonder, however, if increased resources to facilitate African Americans studying abroad is an agenda item for serious consideration.
Only time will tell.
Dr. Richard Kitson-Walters is an alumnus of Morgan State University.