Kalamazoo College's Student Newspaper
Emily Townsend Editor-in-Cheif
Kayan Hales ‘14 wrote on her study abroad blog: “There are also very few black people in China, so I get many stares of curiosity. It’s a little bit uncomfortable but I think as time goes by I will get used to it.”
Most years the majority of Kalamazoo College juniors participate in study abroad, a major pillar in the K-Plan. For some, race plays a transformative role in their study abroad experience, shaping their own cultural identity.
At K, most demographic statistics for study abroad reflect the statistics for the entire school. The percent of racial minorities on study abroad reflects the percent of racial minorities at K — about 10%.
Dr. Joe Brockington, associate provost for international programs, said that dealing with race in another country can be painful.
“When we get into a new integrative international experience, we try to apply our old frames of reference. It leads to a transformation. Part of what we [at the Center for International Programs] do is help people through the pain,” said Brockington.
He cited an example: “Asian American students are often assumed locals in Asia. [People from the host country] expect the student to know things that the locals do. Frustration ensues and things spiral out of control,” said Brockington.
He also said some students get frustrated in other countries because host friends and family view the student through a national identity lens first and consider their racial identity second. He cited examples of African-American students being called only “American” abroad and feeling unhappy.
Hales spoke about her own experience with race in China.
“Two ladies told me in Chinese that they liked my hair. One child stood frozen, gaping at me with her mouth full of ice-cream. That was kind of cute, not to mention funny. Other people stare and sometimes, in passing, I can hear the words meaning ‘black colour’ or meaning ‘black person,’” said Hales in an email.
“Preparation for racial minority students going abroad has not been terribly successful,” said Narda McClendon, Assistant Director for Center of International Programs.
Brockington agreed. He said workshops focused on this theme have been largely ignored by students.
Race abroad affects students from all backgrounds. McClendon said a white student in Africa will probably have more to say about race than another student who goes to Europe. She said she has seen students who are visual minorities abroad become comfortable with their lack of anonymity.
“That tells me that the U.S. frame of reference has changed for the student,” McClendon said.
“Whenever I see a black person, I always do a double take, and sometimes they do it too. It’s a bit awkward because I feel like I should say ‘hi’ when I see them, but I also feel that I’m only saying ‘hi’ because we are perhaps the only two people in a bus or in a room who share the same skin colour. I just smile and they smile back or sometimes, one of us says hi eventually,” Hales wrote in another blog post.
McClendon said reintegration programming is even more of a challenge. Attendance at study abroad orientation and reintegration workshops continue to be an uphill battle for the CIP. The CIP encourages processing through emails, the study abroad handbook and opportunities. But only a small percent of returning students show interest in discussing their experience publicly.
In these discussions, “race is not a focus,” McClendon said.
McClendon said that she has an idea as to why students rarely discuss race after study abroad.
“That could be a byproduct of the way we deal with race in the Midwest. [Race] is not supposed to have a lot of attention,” McClendon said. She added that usually discussions about race on study abroad only address the problematic aspects.
“Positive benefits may not be the first thing you think of, but I think these experiences help folks gain a vocab and gain skills,” said McClendon.
McClendon and Brockington agree that race is only a part of a larger cultural identity shift.
“I wouldn’t frame the discussion as race abroad. I would frame it as cultural identity. Racial, ethnic tensions are everywhere. What people call race in the U.S. may be one thing in Israel, but the dynamics are similar,” said McClendon.