Diversity and Democracy

An Equity Lens for Global Education

I remember the weeks of celebration in DePaul University's Office of Multicultural Student Success when one of our top students, Jordan, was accepted into a prestigious, yearlong study abroad program in Sweden. The office worked primarily with low-income, first-generation college students of color, and Jordan had been an active participant in our retention and persistence programs for several years. His successful application to the Sweden program was a victory for the whole office.

A week before Jordan was to leave the country, I chatted with him about his trip. He was nervous and excited to spread his wings. Like many of his black peers from Chicago's underresourced South Side, he hadn't traveled much outside of Chicago, let alone internationally. Like a good student affairs educator, I asked specific questions about his pretrip preparation. I can distinctly recollect the sheepish look that crossed his face when I asked how his packing was proceeding. In response to some careful, sensitive probing, Jordan revealed that he didn't have a suitcase, and that no one in his family could afford to buy him luggage.

I was shocked and upset—not with Jordan or his family, but with myself and my team. As empowerment agents for low-income students of color, how could we not have considered the numerous barriers to international travel facing Jordan and others in his situation? The majority of our students struggle just to keep up with college costs, so where would they find extra finances to purchase the materials necessary for international travel? In the years following our experience with Jordan, the Office of Multicultural Student Success worked to structure a scholarship that specifically supported the sundry costs that can make or break a study abroad experience for low-income college students.

An Intersectional Approach

As the story above suggests, my perspective on global learning emerges from years of working with low-income college students and students of color who, like so many of our students, aspire to have a global learning experience. Over the years, I have come to see two sets of practices and dialogues that, while typically separate, must be shifted into an intersectional approach to engender more equitable outcomes for all students.

The first set of practices and dialogues focuses on the core concepts of identity, power, oppression, privilege, and social justice. These practices and dialogues are typically housed in institutions' multicultural offices, which were born out of campus agitation and social movements tied to civil rights struggles and which remain focused on the long history of contestation for dignity among people of color and the poor in the United States. The second set of practices and dialogues, typically housed in international education and study abroad offices, focuses on cross-cultural exchange, global citizenship, and geopolitical understanding formed through international encounter. As Caryn McTighe Musil, Chad Anderson, and Eleanor Hall have argued, the learning goals associated with these focus areas should also encompass concepts like "decentering Europe" and "subalterneity" (2012)—suggesting potential connections between the global learning movement and the multicultural movement.

An intersectional approach to these two important movements could and should involve applying an equity lens to global education. As detailed in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' publication Step Up & Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse our Deepening Divides (2015), equity-mindedness involves, in part, a "willingness to look at student outcomes and disparities … disaggregated by race and ethnicity as well as socioeconomic status" (4). In a global learning context, an equity lens challenges us to ask the key question: How do I ensure that all students experience similarly high-quality outcomes as a result of their global learning experiences?

Equity in Study Abroad

In the context of study abroad, an equity lens challenges us to centralize students' identities when considering their global experiences. Who students are, including their racial and class identities, is an important part of how they might experience global learning, and it affects the outcomes that might result from their time abroad. Thus an equity-focused study abroad program must contend with students' identities, such as race, class, sexual orientation, faith, or gender, which serve as foundations for how students experience the world. Domestic approaches to multicultural education reflect an understanding of this dynamic, placing learners' identities at the forefront of program designs. International programs would benefit from a similar approach.

Furthermore, a student's visible identities, such as race or gender expression, can be the surface on which the world projects its understanding of the student. Before departure, educators must engage and support students so they understand how their identities might interact with the culture and customs of the international locations they plan to visit. For example, faculty and staff who are preparing a black transgender student to study abroad in Qatar must engage and support that student in understanding how black and transgender identities might interact with the culture and customs in Qatar. In contrast, faculty and staff who are preparing a low-income student to study abroad in Scandinavia, where the basic cost of living can be challenging to manage, must focus the pretrip education on financial literacy and, if necessary, provide additional financial support. In both examples, the student cannot hope to experience the same transformative learning outcomes as his or her peers with relative privilege if the institution does not apply an equity lens when structuring study abroad programs.

To apply an equity lens to study abroad, consider these questions in your campus efforts:

  • How are aspects of identity—such as race, sexual orientation, and class—accounted for in the ways you select students and prepare them for study abroad experiences?
  • How are faculty and staff trained and empowered to meaningfully engage questions of identity and equity before, during, and after study abroad?
  • How can the institution take an intersectional approach to blending canonical multicultural and diversity practices with global learning programming to produce study abroad experiences that are not only enriching, but also safe and equitable for all learners?

Risks of Disconnection

Musil (2010) and Musil, Anderson, and Hall (2012) challenge us to consider the consequences of disconnecting the global learning agenda from the civic and diversity agendas. The results could be everything from "weakened conceptual frames" for student learning to "minimized transformative impact on the academy" (Musil, Anderson, and Hall 2012). It is imperative that we expand this understanding of risk and consequences to include the risks of failing to use an equity lens.

It is not enough to invite low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color into the movement for global education; in the case of study abroad, we must alter our preparatory programs, curricula, and re-entry programs to ensure equal outcomes for all learners. By considering the critical role of identity in how we design study abroad programs from the outset, and how we train faculty and staff to engage learners in the experience, we can begin addressing the barriers to access, moments of alienation, and dampened transformation experienced by some participants.

In Jordan's case, once the Office of Multicultural Student Success had a clear understanding of the unaddressed challenges, we networked with partners across the university to get Jordan the materials he needed. As the academic year progressed, we occasionally received a postcard or letter from Jordan detailing a new revelation from his coursework or from a weekend trip to another country. When Jordan dropped by the office the following summer to say thank you and show off his photos, the value of our efforts to apply an equity lens to global educational experiences was clear.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015. Step Up & Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Divides. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2010. "Remapping Education for Social Responsibility: Civic, Global, and US Diversity." In To Serve a Larger Purpose: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education, edited by John Saltmarsh and Matthew Hartley, 238–64. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Musil, Caryn McTighe, Chad Anderson, and Eleanor Hall. 2012. "Remapping Higher Education for Social Responsibility: Integrating Civic, Global, and US Diversity Lenses." PowerPoint slides presented at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education, New York City, May 28.

Vijay Pendakur is associate vice president for student affairs at California State University–Fullerton.

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