Examining educational equality is a difficult endeavor within the United States alone. There is an immense diversity of institutions from liberal arts colleges to vocational schools and more. The lack of uniformity in American higher education is shared in that of England and, as such, it became necessary to examine educational equality at QMUL from the vantage of outward mobility. At the outset of writing for this blog, I didn’t have an exact focus in my goal to highlight the experiences of First Generation and/or low-income (FLI) students and other students of underrepresented backgrounds at institutions of higher education in England. As my time at QMUL progressed, my own study abroad experiences made me curious about study abroad or, outward mobility, at QMUL.
My focus on outward mobility helped me narrow research for my blog and made understanding educational equality at QMUL easier on its own and as compared to educational equality at Amherst. At both institutions, outward mobility and study abroad, respectively, have their own sub-cultures and are a part of opportunities within higher education that are illustrative of a broader picture of access and inclusivity for an increasingly diverse student body.
The exploration of outward mobility with attention to culture and recognition of benefits for both the institution and students was perhaps the most important takeaway from my conversation with Dr. Poleg about his research on widening participation in outward mobility. At both Amherst and QMUL, study abroad and outward mobility have their own cultures that are more difficult to access for some students and their family and community than other students. Distinctions between FLI students and non-FLI students arise as the former is more likely to contend with lacking information about opportunities like study abroad and outward mobility with the additional consideration of needing to introduce their family and community to the culture of such opportunities than the latter.
It is important to note that no sweeping generalizations and comparisons can be made regarding either study abroad or outward mobility because all students interact with those microcosms of higher education differently. Yet, it is necessary to critically interrogate how study abroad and outward mobility are perceived and the impacts of those perceptions on those who ultimately study, volunteer, or work abroad and those who don’t. The compelling findings of the focus groups at QMUL are in no way completely applicable to Amherst or any other institution in England or the United States. However, the cultural competency of the focus groups and the holistic understanding of their results is something that is increasingly important to implement at all colleges and universities that claim to have a commitment to diversity and espouse favorable statistics in their promotional materials.
It is still important to ask to what extent it is really up to institutions that pursue diversity to analogously increase access and inclusivity of opportunities such as study abroad. Is it not enough for colleges and universities to admit students of underrepresented backgrounds into their schools? Is that a good enough equalizer? If not, what does educational equality actually mean? There are overt examples of what educational equality is not, but institutions need to move beyond extreme or generalized measures of educational equity to actually support their coveted diverse and inclusive student body after their admission.
Part of supporting a diverse and inclusive body must include shifting exclusive cultures on campus with an understanding of the multiplicity of barriers students may encounter in accessing and gaining support in the opportunities offered within higher education.
During my study abroad experience, I was very often preoccupied with money and being financially responsible. My preoccupation with my finances is, of course, a logical one even with assistance from the Office of Financial Aid and some of the insightful conversations I had with them about studying abroad on a budget. But, one of my deeper and more difficult concerns to express was about whether I should actually study abroad. A large part of me felt like I had already done enough in being admitted to Amherst. Behind this sentiment was a belief that I didn’t belong with study abroad students. My image of such students is so far removed from myself that it was incredibly difficult to visualize myself going abroad.
My difficulty in seeing study abroad as an experience open to me is in no way informed by overt messaging by Amherst about students like me not being able to participate in such experiences or the lack of other students with similar identities to mine who have studied abroad at Amherst before me. However, it is important to consider the extent to which Amherst has challenged the notion of the stock affluent and white study abroad student so that students can, at the very least, begin to imagine the possibility of study abroad for themselves.
Of course, I recognize that Amherst and the Global Education Office have implemented many pragmatic resources and supports that challenge traditional perceptions of study abroad such as the Study Away and Financial Aid Student Panel. Yet, I think it is important to consider how to shift the culture of study abroad to actually include all students and bring in their family and community.
Though my blog focused on educational equity in study abroad or outward mobility, central ideas can be expanded to multiple components of higher education. Study abroad is simply a particular concentration of the perpetuation of inequity and underrepresentation of particular students that is symptomatic of broader issues that need address at diverse institutions like Amherst and others. Diversity is not simply having the numbers of different identities on campus, but how those numbers are incorporated into the sociocultural experience of higher education.
As much work as Amherst has to do to better support students of underrepresented backgrounds on campus, I am grateful for the experiences I have had at Amherst. Though I struggled to visualize myself studying abroad before and during this semester, I am still able to capitalize on this experience and the resources provided by the institution. I made it to Amherst and I made it to London, a place I never imagined I would be and certainly not as a student. Despite all of my fears and misgivings, I’m proud that I studied abroad and I definitely didn’t regret it as so many people told me I wouldn’t (even though I didn’t believe them at first). I hope that all students at Amherst consider studying abroad because it is a fulfilling experience and it will be what you need and make it to be. Though more work needs to be done to improve educational equity at Amherst, my time abroad wouldn’t have been possible without its institutional support, my community, my dear friend, and my family.