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Opening the door for underrepresented students to study abroad

Junior communication major Nia Doaks, left, and junior criminology major Londun Isler show their Wolfpack pride in Pisac, Peru. Photo courtesy of Nia Doaks.

Nia Doaks says studying abroad was the best decision she’s made in college.

Sure, the NC State communication major was nervous before traveling to Peru for six weeks; she had never been overseas. However, by stepping out of her comfort zone and living with host families for most of the trip, Doaks said she made great strides in learning about language and cultural traditions that are far different from her own.

“I learned, for instance, that when you greet someone, you kiss them on the cheek,” Doaks said. “I would never have known little things like that if I had not gone abroad.

“Cultural competency is very important in the job market, so if you have something like study abroad on your resume, I think it really helps.”

Doaks, a junior studying public and interpersonal communication, talked about her experience during “#TravelingWhileBlack,” the first in a series of information sessions aimed at encouraging underrepresented student groups to study abroad. The sessions, which will also seek out Native American, Hispanic, multicultural and first-generation students, are part of a larger College of Humanities and Social Sciences pilot program that will award grants to help some students pay for learning overseas.

Through the program, which is being funded by a $25,000 NC State University Foundation grant, the college hopes to show students how study abroad can augment their education and careers. Organizers also want to expose any misconceptions that may be holding them back.

How to pay for study abroad programs, for instance, is one of the top concerns echoed by students who are leery about going overseas, said Blair Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Kelley, who wrote the grant for the program, said the pilot program will help offset the cost of trips for some students and inform others about alternative funding opportunities that exist.

The pilot program’s grants of up to $2,500 will be awarded to eight Travel Scholars from underrepresented groups, including first-generation students of any background, Kelley said. Eligible applicants must also be Humanities and Social Sciences majors who have completed at least 12 letter-graded credit hours.

Blair Kelley
Blair Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, addresses students during “#TravelingWhileBlack: A conversation about study abroad.”

“We want to show students that study abroad is an investment in their future that’s really going to pay off,” Kelley said. “It expands what students know and can do.”

Six student panelists talked about how study abroad enriched their education during the #TravelingWhileBlack information session, an event that drew more than 50 students. In addition, NC State Study Abroad adviser Kevin Feeney spoke about eligibility requirements, what programs are offered and how financial aid and scholarships can help pay for trips.

“In 98 percent of cases, the financial aid you have here travels with you,” Feeney said. “What that means is any aid you are receiving, whether it’s a loan or grant, by and large that’s going to transfer and you can use that to study abroad.”

By targeting the pilot program at underrepresented groups, organizers add to a growing effort across the nation to create a more diverse student profile abroad.

In the United States, 76 percent of the nearly 290,000 college students who study abroad each year are white. And while the National Center for Education Statistics shows that African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and multiracial students make up nearly 40 percent of total college-student enrollment, less than 24 percent study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2014 Open Doors report.

Kelley said first-generation students of any background are also less likely to travel while in school. Family obligations and a general cultural hesitancy to travel are reasons those students sometimes have concerns, she said.

“They don’t have family-based experiences that let them know early on that study abroad is interesting and rewarding,” Kelley said. “I don’t want them to miss it because they didn’t know it was important.

“Just knowing that the world has a lot more in common with you than it doesn’t is a powerful thing.”

Lisa Redfearn
Lisa Redfearn, a senior business administration major, talks to a group of her peers during “#TravelingWhileBlack: A conversation about study abroad.”

As part of the pilot program, Kelley is tracking the reasons why students have apprehensions and charting how study abroad affects their learning. She is asking students to fill out pre- and post-assessments at each information session and will follow up with those who receive grants.

Kelley said that data can help show why some student groups need more encouragement and how important study abroad is in their education.

“It changes your perception about lifestyle, politics and culture,” Kelley said. “And when students return, they have a broader outlook on the degree they are completing.”

A committee will begin reviewing applications to the Travel Scholar program on Nov. 15. For more information or to obtain an application form, contact Kelley at

Using social media

To recruit students to the program and get anecdotal evidence for the information sessions, Kelley is taking to social media. Prior to the #TravelingWhileBlack event, for instance, she asked some of her 23,000 followers on Twitter to comment on their studies overseas.

Her question sparked an ongoing conversation, with dozens of users commenting on their experiences.