Angel Ayala ’10 has spent the past two summers in Beijing and plans to study in Paris next summer, possibly even taking next year off to travel and study French.
Unusual though it may be for a Yalie to have so many study -broad experiences, it is even more unusual for a student like Ayala, who is of Hispanic origin.
If Congress has its way, 1 million American undergraduates will study abroad annually by the year 2017. If current trends persist, however, less than 20 percent of those students will be minorities.
At Yale, 263 out of 650 Elis studying abroad in 2007-’08, or about 40 percent, were minorities. But Yale’s figures tower above national statistics, which show the percentage of minority students studying abroad has remained virtually flat — around 17 percent, compared to an average annual increase of 9 percent for all students — for years, according to an Institute of International Education report released last year.
Yale administrators said the University’s dedication to providing financial backing for students going abroad helps contribute to the relatively large proportion of minority Yalies studying at overseas institutions.
“We’re really blessed with the resources we have here,” said Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, who attended a conference on diversity in international education sponsored by the Institute for the International Education of Students two weeks ago. “We’re able to provide the funding for international education some schools can’t. But this is something we need to keep an eye on.”
Ayala, who won a Richard U. Light Fellowship to study abroad in China both summers, said without the financial support Yale gave him, “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to go.” The Light Fellowship covers all expenses for language study in East Asia, meaning that Ayala did not have to touch his parents’ resources.
Brian Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, said the underrepresentation of minorities in study-abroad programs is a “top issue” in the higher education industry.
Whalen identified the cost of studying abroad and the lack of minority-specific advising and support as two major reasons for the disparity.
“A lot of [reasons for the low proportion] tend to be perceptions that we try to battle,” he said.
While many private institutions, including Yale, offer terms abroad that cost the same amount as a term in the United States, there are always extra costs and fees for traveling to a foreign country. Even when a student’s financial aid can be applied to study-abroad programs, the price tag of a term or year abroad can be a major deterrent, especially for minority students, Whalen said.
Then there is the difficulty of overcoming cultural perceptions of study abroad, an issue that often involves not only student anxieties but also their families’ expectations. Whalen said since many minority students are already the first in their families to attend college, going to a foreign country is “a greater leap of faith for them than it is for other students.”
Peggy Blumenthal, the chief operating officer of the IIE, said study-abroad programs targeting minority students have expanded recently, citing the State Department-sponsored Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, under which the rate of minority students going abroad is “three to four times higher than the national average,” she said.
The Gilman program provides federal funding to students who are already receiving Pell Grants as part of their college financial aid.
“It depends on the efforts of individual campuses to raise overall awareness of global education opportunities,” Blumenthal said. “[Study abroad] isn’t just a frill, it’s an important part of their education.”
Every college must decide how to promote study abroad after evaluating its curriculum and mission, Whalen said.
“There’s no right answer for all institutions,” he said.
Yale’s generous study-abroad funding may account for the relatively high proportion of minority students studying abroad at Yale, Gentry said.
The Light Fellowship, the International Summer Award program and the option of applying Yale financial aid to study abroad programs are all part of Yale’s effort to lighten financial burdens, Associate Dean of International Affairs Jane Edwards wrote in an e-mail.
One student who used his Yale financial-aid package to fund a semester abroad was Josh Garcia ’09, who spent this past spring in Senegal. Because the cost of the program was already much lower than the tuition for a semester at Yale, Garcia’s financial aid made his term in Africa exceptionally affordable.
“From my family’s point of view, it was like, well, it’s cheaper than Yale, and he wants to do it,” Garcia said.
Edwards added that, to address cultural obstacles, the Office of International Education is asking minority students with successful international experiences to help with campus outreach, especially through a new peer-advising program at the Center for International Experience.
“[These efforts will] make it clear to students and their families that international experience is affordable and beneficial for all our students,” Edwards said.
For Ayala, even Yale’s resources might not be enough to send him to Paris next summer. Although he received substantial support when applying for the Light Fellowship, he says that he has had to be “much more proactive” to plan and obtain funding for his time in France.
Overall, however, “I definitely recommend [studying abroad], but you have to analyze your own situation,” he said.