More UI minorities studying abroad

By Terrell Starr

When Antwain Johnson, sophomore in Media, went to Singapore, his African-American ethnicity was something of a novelty.

During a two-week study abroad course in December 2007, Antwain said the attention he received for being black wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, he soon understood that his skin tone would bring him celebrity status.

As Antwain and another African-American on the trip went shopping in a mall in the capital city one day, he noticed that all of a sudden they were the center of attention.

“Everybody just kept on looking at us,” the Chicago native remembers. “And one person approached us and asked, ‘Are you guys rappers? Are you basketball players?'”

But Antwain said neither he nor his friend was offended by the stranger’s assumption. Instead, they took what could have been an uncomfortable moment and turned it into 15 minutes of fame.

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“We went along with the joke,” he recalls. “I told him my father is a professional basketball player, and my friend said his father is a rapper. So after that, (everyone) treated us like royalty. They sat us down in these massage chairs; they bought us drinks; we got free stuff around the mall and we were just enjoying it.”

However, it’s impossible for the University to gauge if all of the minority students who study abroad experience the kinds of cross-cultural interactions Antwain did. But what is clear is that more minorities have been taking advantage of opportunities to study overseas.

According to figures provided by the Study Abroad Office, the number of Hispanic-American and Asian-American students studying abroad has been increasing for the past five years. Participation of African-American students has been steady for the past four years.

Sarah Grace Gleisner, outreach coordinator for the Student International Academic Affairs, attributes part of the increase to the office’s efforts to meet with minority Registered Student Organizations, to hold information sessions at cultural houses and to make scholarship money more available.

Several cultural house administrators and students who have studied abroad cited finances as one of the hurdles that prevent many minority students from studying abroad. But Gleisner said this is changing, and money is available for people from minority groups.

Nameka Bates, interim director of Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, said she often writes letters of recommendation for black students applying for study abroad programs each semester. The African-American Cultural Center, Bates said, makes study abroad a priority in its student programming. One of the main reasons she feels the numbers are up is because students who have studied abroad are encouraging their friends to do the same.

Bates, also an alumna of the University, said studying abroad never crossed her mind while she was an undergraduate.

“When we were in school, we just didn’t know number one, it was there and that it existed, and number two, there were scholarships available for you to do it,” Bates said. “So it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now that students are thinking about it and understanding it’s important, I think that’s why you’re seeing the results of the increase in the numbers.”

Like a trip back home … sort of

Mengzhu Bai, who is a senior in Engineering and goes by Julie, was born in China, but she moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was four. She said her Chinese is conversational but not fluent, and she feels more culturally connected to America. Julie had been back to her native country once before but returned this summer to work through a scholarship she received from the Study Abroad Office.

Unlike Antwain, she didn’t get the red carpet treatment. Everyone in China expected her to speak the language fluently because she was of Chinese descent. When she didn’t, she evoked confusion.

“I think that they assumed that I either was illiterate, or they just didn’t assume I was from out of the country,” Julie said. “They assumed I was Chinese or they assume I was Korean and didn’t know Chinese. The fact that I was actually American and was visiting didn’t really cross their minds. I usually had to explain it to them.”

Patricia Esquivel, senior in LAS, studied abroad in Chile and Mexico. She has fond memories of her time in both countries, but being Latina made them more memorable. Born to parents of Peruvian and Mexican descent, Julie feels like a minority in America, she said. But when she was in Mexico and Chile, Patricia recalls feeling like a member of the majority – sort of. She shared Julie’s experience of being in a country where she looked like everyone else, but something American about her always managed to slip out.

“I have a slight English accent when I speak Spanish,” Patricia said. “(But) when I speak English they would ask me, ‘Oh you speak excellent English. Where did you learn it?'”

For Patricia, being Hispanic-American in Latin America was like balancing dual identities. When she was in Chile, people thought she was Mexican or Peruvian.

“(But in Mexico), everyone thought I was … well, no one knew what I was there,” she said smiling. “‘Are you Mexican? Are you from South America?’ There was a lot of confusion.”

Trying to explain her American identity to people who looked similar to her was the hardest adjustment she had to make while studying abroad, Patricia said.

She also had to deal with stereotypes. While in Mexico, she remembers being in class talking to Mexican classmates about American culture. Some of their thoughts surprised her.

“It was me and this girl from Texas (who was also studying abroad),” Patricia remembers. “She was blonde and really bubbly and had this southern drawl and (my Mexican classmates) would look at her and say, ‘You’re exactly what we think of an American.’ And I would be like ‘Ok, I’m an American, too. What do you think of me?'”

Studying abroad and educating people along the way

Though Patricia was taken aback by the stereotypes, she tried to debunk as many of them as she could. So she was not only studying abroad for her own enrichment, but she also felt like a cultural facilitator between America and the people she met in Chile and Mexico.

Veronica Kann, assistant director of La Casa Cultural Latina, believes that people like Patricia can serve even more purposes by studying abroad.

“If they go on a larger group program, obviously they may bring some of the racial dynamics of this campus on the program with them,” Kann said. “And they use that as a teaching tool. So a lot of times it’s a chance for majority students to get to know students of color very well because they’re in the same situation.”

One way or another, many minority students studying abroad seem to find themselves in educator roles, whether they choose to or not. Antwain recalls a time when he visited a dentist for a toothache during his two-week trip in Singapore. Though a translator, the secretary asked him his race.

“I guess she didn’t know, so she said ‘Oh Negro!'” Antwain said. “I looked at her, but I figured she’s just an older lady so she doesn’t know any better. Then she said nigger, negro. I didn’t pay attention at first, and then I said, ‘Hold on what?'”

But he said he kept his cool and realized the woman did not mean any harm.

“Maybe this was her first time seeing somebody of my color, so I couldn’t get too mad.”