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Acknowledge, Reflect, Act

By Tian Song posted 08-04-2020 10:23 AM


On July 15, NAFSA’s Education Abroad Knowledge Community (EAKC) presented an Open Meeting titled Education Abroad - Emerging Barriers & Opportunities for Underrepresented Students, which was hosted by the EAKC Subcommittees on Diversity and Inclusion and Financing Education Abroad. The meeting centered on the financial impacts on underrepresented students related to education abroad.

Participants reflected on how events related to the global health pandemic have added an additional barrier to education abroad programs for diverse and low-income communities. We acknowledged the current state of the pandemic and its multifaceted effects on different groups. The facilitators called for shared language and shared understanding in framing the discussion and cited data from Institute of International Education (IIE) and Diversity Abroad. It was important to recognize where we had been in order to know where we needed to go in terms of addressing some of the major barriers and challenges for underrepresented groups in Study Abroad and International Education.

Some key themes emerged from the breakout sessions:


Groups identified communication as both a positive and negative aspect of how their institutions responded to the crisis. Some institutions created different pathways of communication for students; others reported that communication was jumbled or staggered. The key takeaway was that communication served as a double-edged sword – contributing to perceptions of relief or added stress.

Financial Impact

All groups discussed the financial impact and aftermath of students’ early return due to the pandemic and subsequent suspension or cancellation of programs. Some institutions did well in terms of ensuring equitable access to flight change assistance, insurance, refunds, and financial assistance. Others highlighted the additional financial burden imposed on students who were more economically disadvantaged than their peers. The pandemic exacerbated wealth disparities at the individual and institutional level, for both inbound and outbound programs.

Access to Technology

As many recent studies and reports have shown, the presence and advancement of virtual and remote learning was growing even before the pandemic – COVID only accelerated the launch of such platforms and tools. Just as with communication, technology was seen as a double-edged sword. While different users possessed varying levels of familiarity and skills with online learning platforms and virtual pedagogical tools, the short time frame in which they had to pivot was a roller coaster of innovation and setbacks.

Mental Health and Well-Being

Navigating mental health during this time has also been an additional challenge for the underrepresented groups, as supported by the 2020 Snapshot Survey conducted by Diversity Abroad. For students who returned from abroad early, some offices connected them with support services and facilitated opportunities to unpack their experience through guided reading and reflection. From the survey, students reported that they would have liked to receive more support services, including well-being checks from their institution, a single point of contact for coordinating return, and a step-by-step emergency return plan. Faculty and staff confronted other challenges, which included organizational changes, downsizing, and furloughs. The verdict is still out for which approach is “right” or “wrong” because it depends highly on the type of institution and the constituents it serves. One thing is certain, though: we can engage more and support students and staff to help them navigate the impact of the pandemic on their health and well-being.

Future Directions

Moving forward, we should be better prepared to mitigate the risk of a future pandemic or global event. Institutions will do this by bolstering and aligning communication, offering more mental health and wellness support for students and staff, and designing robust Health, Safety, and Security procedures. We should also expand services for increased inclusion and flexibility. Many institutions have modified their terms of participation, withdrawal and refund policy, and/or program insurance coverage; other education abroad offices are initiating new partnerships and additional opportunities for students to engage in high impact exchange through organizations such as National Student Exchange.

This crisis is far from over. The meeting was a case study in how the pandemic has increased feelings of uncertainty and fear among communities, locally and abroad. For the field of higher education, where many institutions have been actively implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives to increase access to education abroad, the economic fallout will most likely affect those initiatives.

But we must remain vigilant and resilient despite all of this, and advocate for equitable access to the resources and opportunities that dominant groups experience. We must continue to fight for the students that would most benefit from international education and study abroad experiences, while simultaneously adopt innovative practices and embrace the intersections between education and technology. These students must be included, they must be celebrated, and they must be at the forefront of institutional policy (re)design and practice.

To support the continued exchange of good practices, consider proposing a conference session for NAFSA’s 2021 Annual Conference & Expo, a NAFSA Regional Conference, or applying to join one of the EAKC subcommittees.