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Connecting Study-Abroad Experiences with Diversity Learning at Home


More and more students are choosing to spend some of their undergraduate years studying abroad. According to a recent report released by the Institute for International Education, 14.6 percent more students went abroad to study during the 1997-1998 year than in the previous year. This was the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The report also suggests that students are choosing to study in a wider variety of regions than ever before. While Europe is still the most popular destination, many more students are now choosing to study in Africa and South America. A decade ago, 80 percent of those studying abroad did so in Europe while today only 64 percent do. Over that same period the proportion of students going to Latin America has more than doubled, to about 15 percent. These experiences provide wonderful opportunities for students to deepen their diversity learning and to compare how other nations approach issues of diversity.

To make the most of these experiences, however, not only do students need to be given the opportunity to study abroad, but they also need to explore the connections between their study-abroad experiences and what they are learning at home.

St. Lawrence University's new Global Studies Major (see pages 1/12–piloting a senior seminar that attempts to do just that. Specifically, it helps students connect what they are learning in study-abroad experiences with the courses on U.S. diversity they are taking at home.

The seminar being piloted this Spring uses the World Wide Web to link students in the course with their counterparts enrolled in a similar course at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. This seminar, "Comparative Studies in Racial and Cultural Identities," is open to St. Lawrence students returning from programs abroad and is designed to draw on their experiences in other cultures to pursue in depth the question: What is the relationship between one's specific identities (gender, ethnicity, etc.) and one's participation in larger polities, whether regional, national, or global?

The course will teach students to do comparative analyses through a series of regional case studies, initially drawn from the Caribbean and North American region, then moving outward to include other geographic areas in which various class members have studied and/or lived. Based on the location of St. Lawrence's study-abroad programs, it is expected that the seminar will cover several European countries, Kenya, India,Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, and the U.S.

Using a common Web site, in the current version of the course, students at St. Lawrence and at the University of the West Indies will correspond with one another about readings, issues, and common projects. In March, students at St. Lawrence will travel to Trinidad for a week-long conference with their peers; students in both courses will share their research, engage in a series of intergroup dialogues around the central issues of the course, and attend and discuss cultural activities together.

Course readings are drawn from literature, cultural studies, politics, and philosophical scholarship on issues of race, gender, and identity. It also makes extensive use of films. A significant portion of the readings critically examine dominant U.S. assumptions about race, ethnicity, and culture, including "whiteness." The course also pays particular attention to the interrelations between gender and race in different regions, especially as this is revealed through attitudes toward miscegenation and mixed-race identities.

In keeping with the goals of the Global Studies program, students will also complete several assignments during the course involving research, writing, and speech. They will pursue a sustained research project on questions about racial/cultural identities synthesizing their experiences abroad (or in a culturally distinctive U.S. off-campus program), additional research, and the theoretical readings of this course. Specifically, they are asked to research the following questions:

  • What does "multiculturalism" mean in each national context? Does the country understand itself as "multicultural?" What is the place of "multiculturalism" in national discourse, education, politics, and media?
  • How does the country understand or categorize racial and ethnic difference? Who are the groups? How do they identify?
  • Are there recognized categories of mixed race identities? What is their social standing? Are there forms of cultural hybridization or creolization?
  • What is the history of power relations between and among the groups? What are the tensions? Conflicts? Alliances?
  • How have colonialism and postcolonialism affected these understandings and relations?

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not only do students need to be given the opportunity to study abroad, but they also need to explore the connections between their study-abroad experiences and what they are learning at home.