Why I started a study abroad program for People of Color

Promotional material for an International Studies Abroad program in Spain reflects the demographics that dominate study abroad overall.
Promotional material for an International Studies Abroad program in Spain demonstrates the demographics that dominate study abroad.

The two most influential forces in my life have been writing and travel. Growing up I always wanted to see the world (any place outside of Wisconsin would do). Just before I turned seventeen, my mother took me Senegal.

It’s strange to think that one month could change my life, but it did. I fell in love with the food, the people, the baobab trees, and the sandy streets. While jarring to wake up to the unfamiliar cries of roosters intermixed with the Muslim call to prayer, I awoke each day feeling more alive and more myself than I ever had.

It’s like simply being somewhere else gave me the freedom to reinvent myself, only I wasn’t becoming someone else, I was becoming the me I really wanted to be. Through it all my journal was my constant companion. I wrote to document each miraculous day and in the writing began to sort through my feelings.

Being raised in a black feminist household made going to school a challenge. While academically I was well equipped to succeed, my values, my interests, my vocabulary, and my natural hair were all completely different from my peers and even my teachers. In middle school and high school being different is usually equated with being wrong.

For one month, though I was a foreigner being different didn’t feel so wrong, it was expected. There was a place for me, a place where people appreciated my accent and my command of the English language, my hair, my body size and shape, my sense of humor. It was a trip that affirmed me and also inspired in me a passion for travel that has yet to be sated.

I spent my junior year of college in Cadiz, Spain. When I went to meet the cohort I would be traveling with it felt like I was pledging a sorority. I went to Spain with 30 white women, 5 men, and 2 other women of color and it was an amazing experience, but one that was clearly not designed with me in mind.

The welcome packet we received included a list of local businesses, the post office, popular cafes, places to shop and places to get your hair cut. Of course there was no one in the small town of Cadiz who knew anything about black hair. I had to travel 8 hours to Madrid to get it braided in an African shop. It may seem like a small thing, but the small things began to add up, like going out with my friends from the cohort and being told I wasn’t an American because I didn’t look like the other girls.

The author (left) with Aurelio Hernandez, in country director of Global Visionaries, building a school in Guatemala while directing a program for Seattle students to volunteer abroad.
The author (left) with Aurelio Hernandez, in country director of Global Visionaries, building a school in Guatemala while directing a program for Seattle students to volunteer abroad.

After Spain came Japan. I was placed in one of the largest prefectures on Honshu with 200 other English teachers from around the world, yet I was the only black teacher. In fact, I was the only black teacher in the 13 years the town had been hosting the program. It was a shock for everyone involved when I stepped into the classroom for the first time and was greeted by students screaming and hitting each other in disbelief.

During the two years I taught in Japan, I was met with screams repeatedly. Many of them were excited as opposed to scared, but it took me a while to have enough understanding of Japanese to know the difference. I was also followed around in stores, bitten by an autistic child who thought my skin was made of chocolate, and asked by a woman whose eyes were filled with tears why my mother had left me out in the sun too long.

Through it all, at no point during my travels was there any authority figure or program director who had any interest or relevant experience to help me process why my journey was so very different from everyone else’s. What would it have been like to have felt heard? What would it have been like to have had someone who could help me process the nuances of my experience? For as amazing as my travels have been, how much more enriching would they have been with someone who really got it? These were the questions that led me back to school.

In 2006 I completed my MA in International Education from the SIT Graduate Institute. During my year on campus, the entire International Education Program took a field trip to Boston for the NAFSA conference. I stood in a balcony overlooking a ballroom that held literally thousands of study abroad program directors from around the world.

There I was in my snazzy suit with my resume neatly printed ready to network and find a practicum. As I scanned the room, it was like meeting the other people in the Cadiz program only on a much larger scale. Here again was this sorority of upper middle class do-gooder white women with Guatemalan purses, Kenyan earrings, and Chinese silk scarves accenting their business suits.

There were 7 black women in a room filled with thousands — I counted. Over the next few hours I made a point to meet each and every one of them. Not one of them was a study abroad program director. NOT ONE.

I left feeling disheartened. It’s a feeling that stuck with me. I found a practicum. I completed my thesis. I was even given a chance to lead a few programs, during which I learned a lot. But every job I have ever applied for — even positions in organizations designed to work with youth of color — has been headed by white people. Even if they hire staff entirely made up of people of color, they are the ones who have the final say over the curriculum. And while I don’t wish to disparage the good work they are doing, sometimes who they are gets in the way of their goals.

Kathy Norris (left) and the author riding camels in Morocco.
Kathy Norris (left) and the author riding camels in Morocco.

While increasingly there are more opportunities to go abroad and more people investing financial resources in sending our youth of color abroad, there has not been an equal investment in providing them with experiences that are actually designed to accommodate the complexities of who they are in the world.

Many Voices One Tribe is the culmination my long held dream. It is a study abroad program for youth of color. Our mission is to empower young writers of color to see world, to know themselves, and to define their own futures. We are committed to dismantling oppression, telling our own stories, and creating global community. Travel and writing are the catalyst to a deeper exploration of our identities and our place in the world.

Through this program I am curating a space where youth are invited to bring all of who they are, to share with others, and to find points of solidarity across perceived differences. My goal is to provide well-crafted programming that will take youth to a variety of different countries with different thematic focuses.

But for this year we will start small: One trip, 16 high school age youth, for two weeks to Veracruz, Mexico. The program itself will last the entire month of July and include workshops on social identity, crafting print and digital media, poetry, POC self care, Spanish language immersion, cross cultural competency building, and more.

If you want to learn more, I will be hosting an information night on Tuesday, October 28 at 7PM at the Amor Spiritual Center. Applications are due November 2. You can find out more at manyvoicesonetribe.com.

Many Voices One Tribe is also accepting applications for two POC co-facilitators, as well as community partners willing to provide internships to offset the cost of program fees or in kind gifts like museum or event tickets. Email me at manyvoicesonetribe@gmail.com.

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18 Comments

  1. Love! By the way have you heard of Nomadness Travel Tribe? 8000 members strong and 85% are black and Hispanic international travels. Great place to network. :)

  2. Reagan, I would love to connect with you. I’m a SIT grad, white, woman coordinating study abroad. We have created a program for students of color and are a leader on campus for sending minority student abroad. However, I want to create the program that gives the support that is needed for our students to grow and succeed while abroad. Your article reaffirmed all the reasons why special programming is so important for our Business Fellows. Thank you.

  3. we (2 kids, 2 parents) are in our eighth month of global travel. We have abandoned reading guide books and travel stories because we found that our experience was very different. We could not relate. Now we are mostly living away from tourist spots, making friends with locals and learning from them how to “feel” the place out. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Hi Regan,
    I saw your post in the Nomad FB page and was wondering if you were still looking for a co-facilitator? I left a detailed message in response to the invite you sent out. Would you pls have a look and let me know?

  5. Wow! I am in love with this piece and your heart to inspire and impact in our community. I found this article in a group I am a part of on Facebook called, Blacks in Japan. It is so neat that you lived in Japan. I am currently in the Shiga prefecture. Even though I am Mixed, I get stopped everyday with people wanting to touch my hair and ask me a million questions. I don’t get annoyed; I just use it as a way to create dialog. I have been studying Japanese now for 1 1/2 years. I have a vision to inspire the youth here to value their life and know they are loved. I am hurt by how many teens and young adults commit suicide each year and how many young women are selling themselves for money.

    On another note, traveling the world has changed my life and given me a purpose I never knew existed. My family was very poor, on drugs, and I have been in the streets most of my life. I was labeled a juvenile delinquent all my life and a “hustler”. My teachers always said I wouldn’t be anything in life – dead or prison was what they said. I only made it to college (which saved my life) because I had coaches that believed in me and didnt allow me to give up. I won a $160,000 scholarship telling my story. But it didnt keep me from being in the streets. It wasn’t until my fiancé, a professional basketball player overseas, asked me to come with him overseas. I have traveled to 6 countries so far, and I have many more to see. Every experience has changed my life in some way. I was living to die before. I didnt care about anything. I had nothing to lose. Traveling saved my life; it gave me life. I cannot even explain in words what it has done for me. My dream is to see the youth have the ability to see the world. I know it would change their life like it has done mine.

    I am so proud of you! I know I don’t know you, but I wish the very best for your life. I pray many doors open up for you and your vision. You are changing and saving lives.

    YOU ROCK SIS-STAR! Much love from one sista to another in Japan xoxo

  6. @ Tenzing, that sounds amazing. Best of luck on your travels. @Lea Yes, I am still accepting applications for co-facilitators. Applications are due November 2. Apply online under the Get Involved Tab at http://www.manyvoicesonetribe.com @Jessenia, much love to you too sis! I’m proud of you for getting out into the world and not allowing anyone else’s ideas of you to limit you. You’ve got a great story. I hope Shiga treats you well. It was a crazy experience, but I did love Japan, especially Kyoto and Sapporo.

  7. This is amazing. I am an African American male and a junior at St.Mary’s collee of Maryland.
    I recently applied to study abroad in India this upcomig spring semester. I’ve neer really been out of the country. I have mixed feelings that I would describe as nervous, anxious, excited and curious to know what it will be like to be black in another country. Your post has inspired me to continue on with this process. I would love to be apart of your initiative to promote world travel among the black community.

  8. Yay! I love the work that you are doing and will certainly send interested Students of Color your way. Thanks!

  9. Greetings Reagan…I continued to think about this on the way to work this morning…connecting some dots between your words and my experience as the founding director of SIT’s gay, lesbian, bisexual studies, semester-long program in the Netherlands (now called “Gender and Sexuality Studies”). Not sure if/how one creates an identity-based program (particularly at the college-level) without facing charges of discrimination. But I can say from experience that how a program is marketed really impacts the demographics of enrollment. My guess is the a “Race, Culture & Identity” program would draw mostly (but not probably not exclusively) students of color. I sooooo love what you’re doing and would support it any way that I could. (P.S. I’m also an SIT alum.)

  10. Reagan, I hope you don’t mind, I’m planning to use this article and your program for an RPQ. :)

    I’m currently in capstone phase and I’ll be focusing on racial/ethnic recruitment practices for a high school exchange program. I’ll also be in Seattle soon. It would be really great to meet up and chat.

  11. Peg- thanks for the support. So far things are going well. I am loving the youth who have signed up to be a part of the program. I understand what you mean by theme, but sometimes in order to achieve what you want you must be explicit. I want to be very transparent that my program is specifically for youth writers who identify as people of color. If others want to view this as discriminatory that is their choice, but after meeting the youth I am even more convinced that there is a need for what I have to offer and the way in which I can offer it. It’s an awesome process. Chris – That’s cool. Best of luck on your capstone. I did mine on Black study abroad leaders and intersection between double consciousness and teaching cultural competencies. Email me when you are in Seattle.

  12. Wow you’re awesome!! I recently became ESL certified and one part of me is telling me that I probably won’t find anything because I’m black and another part is telling me to have a little faith!

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