GVSU students of color discuss experiences studying abroad at panel event

Megan Webster

Of the Grand Valley State University students who studied abroad last year, 86 percent were Caucasian, 5 percent were African-American and 3 percent were Hispanic/Latino.

The Padnos International Center (PIC), the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Laker Familia came together at the Being Black and Brown Abroad event Tuesday, Jan. 24, in the Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons Multipurpose Room to address these statistics.

“When you look at the national statistics of who it is that studies abroad, it is largely Caucasian people and largely female,” said Alissa Lane, outreach coordinator at the Padnos International Center. “We thought that we would have this event to highlight students of color who have studied abroad here at Grand Valley.”

Structured in a conversational format, a panel of five GVSU students of color, both undergraduate and graduate, answered questions about their experiences abroad. The questions, asked by both faculty members and attendees, centered on the students’ decision to study abroad, family reactions to their decision, fears before leaving, favorite memories, challenges and handling the cost of a study abroad program.

Not only did the panelists make sure to touch on this information, but they also talked about what it was like to be a person of color while studying abroad. Care McLean, program coordinator for the TRiO Student Support Services, said when students of color come to her office to discuss their options for study abroad programs, questions often arise about how they are going to be perceived in other countries due to their race.

When asked about these anticipated perceptions, Odell Mcfarland, a student on the panel who traveled to Barcelona, talked about his experiences studying in Spain.

“In my group, I was the only African-American, and I was one out of two of the guys who traveled in my group,” he said. “No one could relate to me, but in Spain, it is very diverse. You see many different cultures and many different races and many different colors of skin. I felt very comfortable in Spain.”

Mcfarland wasn’t the only person to experience the diversity that comes with studying abroad. Dai’Jah Todd, who traveled to Japan, described her own experience standing out in the crowd, although the reason for this was a bit different.

“When I got there, they (saw me) more as a foreigner than a person of a particular race,” Todd said. “I just stood out because I was American, not because I was black.”

A question about the curiosity of locals allowed Todd to elaborate a little more on her experience in Japan as a student of color.

“It was the summertime when I got there so my hair was twisted,” she said. “They thought it was dreads. They would reach out and touch it a lot, and I was in a more rural area, as well, so they weren’t used to seeing foreigners, especially one with an afro.”

When the panelists were asked to give one piece of advice to anybody who has a desire to study abroad, all of the answers the students gave were unique and offered different insights: immerse yourself in the culture, do things out of your comfort zone and just pull the trigger on signing up.

If students want to learn about their options for studying abroad, they can contact the PIC, located at 130 Lake Ontario Hall, for information.