A pilot study abroad reentry program for underserved students

Debois JenningsDuBois Jennings
MA Candidate in International Education
Practicum: Creating a reentry program for underserved students within the study abroad office of Hamilton College

Can you talk about why you chose SIT and how you felt your on-campus experience prepared you for what you’re doing now?

I taught English abroad for many years but I was unfulfilled. I really wanted to help college-age students, especially students of color, go abroad and support them in their experiences abroad. I really did not know where to go to do that or if there was a degree that even offered that. Somebody recommended SIT Graduate Institute’s international education degree, where you can learn how to work in the field of study abroad and study away and basically figure out how that works, which I knew relatively nothing about.

In the on-campus phase of my degree I focused a lot on access and support of study abroad opportunities for underrepresented students. Now in my practicum at Hamilton College, I’m creating a pilot reentry program for a group of underserved students on campus. I’m working in a study abroad office and every day I’m using the things I learned in all of my courses in my on-campus phase. So I think SIT really prepared me to be in the professional world.

Describe what you mean when you say “underserved.”

The “nontraditional” college students: first generation, low socioeconomic background, racial and ethnic minority.

What are the specific reentry needs of those students and how are they different from others?

Those students have different needs than, say, a Caucasian middle-class student who goes abroad. Especially in this political climate, students are going to countries that were traditionally “safe” European countries to study abroad and having experiences of micro and at times overt racial aggression and xenophobic negative experiences.

Their identities are constructed in many different ways, and it’s the first time many of these students have had these experiences outside of the country. So when they return to a predominantly white school that lacks the support services and faculty and staff that can assist them, they have a lot of different needs than a “traditional” college student would … to be able to process and understand what happened to them abroad and how they can use those experiences in a positive way in their final year or semesters at college

Can you give an example of a student who faced some challenges and how you’ve been able to help that person?

One of my reentry sessions was focused on career development and thinking of an experience abroad that they could use to showcase skills, perhaps in a job interview. One student was really struggling and saying that she didn’t have an experience where she developed skills abroad. We talked about some of the challenges. She said, “I never felt comfortable there. It was difficult. I always felt like I stood out when I went out.” So I asked about some ways that she found comfort.

She said, “Even in my homestay it was difficult because my homestay mother didn’t speak English. But we talked about immigration and refugees and her job as a midwife.” I said, “But you said she didn’t speak English; how did you get into those kinds of conversations?” She said they pushed through it and figured it out. I said that shows an incredible amount of drive, wanting to learn about somebody and pushing through differences to try to communicate with them. So even a mundane experience of talking to a host mother is incredibly telling about the kind of experience you had abroad.

Do many other colleges and universities have this kind of reentry program?

I don’t know of any reentry programs specifically designed for underserved students. I know reentry programs have been popular for a while, but mostly at the schools that have a fully staffed off-campus study or study abroad office—schools that can afford to put resources and faculty and staff into it. Hamilton College, being a small liberal arts school, and many other liberal arts schools in the region, don’t have the person-power in their offices to launch a full-fledged reentry program.

So it sounds like what you’re doing—tailoring this reentry program for underserved students—is creating a new model.

Yes, I’ve tailored it to underserved students because that’s my interest and what I wanted to focus my study on, but I can see this model really needs to be expanded to not just underserved students but every student. There’s potential for learning if we brought those two student populations into a reentry session.

Is your priority to increase the number of underserved students who are studying abroad?

Hamilton actually has a high number of underserved students studying abroad. What I’ve discovered through this practicum is that it’s not enough to give [students] the money and the experience. Real work needs to be done in supporting them before they leave, while they’re in country, and when they return. If not, it could have potentially damaging effects on the students both abroad and when they return to school. A successful program can produce a student who has a great academic trajectory that leads into their postgraduate work, whether that’s more academics or a professional field. But they’re also great role models for incoming students who maybe have no idea what study abroad is.

Why is this important at this point in time—creating more opportunities and preparing students for their experiences?

Right now, international education and experiences and academics abroad are incredibly important because there seems to be a great divide. Half the country seems to think we should be closed off. The way forward, the way real progress can be made, is with contact from people all around the world. That’s how the best things get created in the world, when minds are working together. So we need to be preparing young people of all kinds of identities and diversities to have these experiences abroad and meet other people of different identities and diversities on the other side of the world to truly create benefits for mankind in the future.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I’m indebted and so thankful that I went to SIT at the time that I did. I arrived at SIT at a pivotal moment in my life, returning from being abroad for an extended period of time and not knowing what to do next. SIT really saved me in that the first two weeks I was forced to reflect on who I had become during the seven years outside this country and who I wanted to be. And then it gave me the tools to enter a profession that, after my first week on the job, I realized is what I want to do for the rest of my life. SIT did an amazing job of preparing me to be successful at that.