Opinion: Stigma and Stereotyping within Study Abroad
By Jesse Shircliff, Guest Columnist
What Gettysburg needs—at least what everyone likes to say Gettysburg needs— are “thoughtful dialogues,” “diverse opinions,” and a “means to enhance a more welcoming environment.” If you agree, then Let’s Talk about It.
Let’s Talk about It is new weekly series on campus offering opportunities to talk about real life. The first discussion tackled stigma and stereotyping within study abroad, titled: “Gettysburg Students and their Basic Ass Study Abroad Choices.” The event was co-sponsored by Gettysburg African Student Association, Latin American Student Association, and Muslim Student Association. Makkah Matthis imagined this discussion forum, and the study abroad topic was suggested by Grecia Patino who overhead two students discussing their study abroad choices:
“I would never study in Africa or Latin America…why would anybody go there?” When Patino inquired further, the student had little to defend their reasoning. Rather, they just did not want to visit countries in those areas.
Perhaps Gettysburg fits into a larger trend: statistics from the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) report that American students were more likely to visit European nations (54.4%) compared to Latin America (15.5%), Asia (11.6%), Oceania (4.4%), Africa (4.0%), and the Middle East (2.1%) in 2017. At the same time NAFSA suggests that minorities are less likely to study abroad given that Caucasian students were over represented in study abroad programs with 56.9% of total post-secondary enrollment and 70.8% of total U.S. students abroad.
With individuals from the associated clubs representing programs across the globe, the discussion that followed was precisely the kind of civil discourse this campus community so desires.
Edith related that the event represented a number of perspectives and debate over the decision to choose one country over another. She stated: “My fear was that it would be one-sided… but we had people from many different programs. When the debate swayed one way, there were people saying, ‘no, this isn’t the case’ and offering a different perspective.”
Instead of one basic story, there are a number of reasons that students choose “basic” countries. Some students simply need a high level of comfort, and perhaps they believe Europe is a little easier to visit. For example, hygiene and food are points of cultural clash and discomfort, so this concern is minimized for countries that are more well known. Also, majors can be restricting: art majors have few options beyond Europe, and students from health science, too, are limited to locations like Denmark. Then again, students may be looking for a culture where they will not feel like an outsider, and programs with strict language requirements are off-limits to many. Edith mentioned that Chilé’s program in physics conducted courses entirely in Spanish. Still, when asked what positions were taken on the college’s study abroad options, Edith stated: “We didn’t necessarily say that Gettysburg should change or add more programs, but… I think it was implied.”
It was also discussed that individuals from disadvantaged demographics study abroad less. Participants wondered whether those who strongly identify with their community may not be as eager—or as able—to fly away for the semester. Representing minority groups in abroad experiences may take place outside the college.
There was one resounding concern: “There is a stigma against Africa, Latin America, and Asia that these places are too culturally different, dangerous, or something else that it means they’re not worth discovering.” Participants believed that interacting with members of less-popular countries may be an effective way to de-mystify such programs. By learning about a country from someone who’s been there, you might see that it’s not as different or as dangerous as it seems. It is also important, Edith said, to remember “the stigma is not yours, it comes from society.”
I asked Edith her final thoughts on traveling to a basic country, and she responded: “As long as you have a valid reason to go, go. But don’t go to a ‘typical’ place based on stigmas.” Studying off campus is life-changing experience and an opportunity to challenge stereotypes before you’ve even selected the program.
Why don’t you chip in? With the world swirling around, you shouldn’t wait until the “easy discussion” comes along—the things which need discussed are rarely easy—and Let’s Talk about It has plans to grow and continue, first by adding community houses into its network and expanding into more of the student body.
The group is taking a hiatus over Spring break following March 2nd’s discussion of blackface and its lingering presence in politics, academies, and fashion, but keep an eye out for the next event so you, too, can join a conversation.
Edith Tea is the vice-President of GASA, leader of the Bombsquad, and studied abroad in Santiago Chilé.