‘Black & Abroad’ panelists share advice on scholarships, ‘irreplaceable’ study abroad experiences

Seven panelists discussed scholarships, programs and personal experiences from studying abroad as part of the "Black & Abroad" event on Tuesday. Photo by Nicholas Vaughn

Hannah Eason, News Editor

Marissa Pierre, university relations manager at the Southeastern United States’ International Student Exchange. Photo by Hannah Eason

Marissa Pierre said when she studied abroad in London for the first time, it was lonely at first. She said she didn’t connect with other Americans on the trip until she finally found her “tribe.”

“I think that is a big part of why a lot of black students maybe don’t want to go abroad, because they don’t feel like they have a community backing them,” Pierre said. “They’re fearful that ‘no one will look like me,’ or ‘I won’t be able to connect with other people.’”

After finding other students of color, Pierre said her experience changed. She now works as a university relations manager for the Southeastern U.S. at the International Student Exchange Program. She answers student and parent questions about safety, friendly destinations for students of color, and how to style hair abroad.

Guest speakers shared stories of killing scorpions, teaching English in Mexico and helping refugees in the University Student Commons ballroom on Tuesday, as students gathered to discuss the experience of being a person of color while studying abroad.

The Global Education Office held the “Black & Abroad” event as part of Black History Month celebrations held by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, or OMSA.

Eden Gordley, a political science major and African studies minor, said she was “itching for something new” when she started looking into study abroad trips to Barbados and a section of the Civil Rights Trail through Georgia and Alabama. After her parents told her no, Gordley started a GoFundMe and made her way to Barbados. 

“Barbados was just such a beautiful experience because if you go there as a black student, you kind of have an opportunity to blend in somewhat, or be able to not be looked at as American,” Gordley said. “Obviously, until you speak.”

The panelist said her grades have improved since her travels, and she’s now considering a graduate degree. Gordley added that scholarships and grants are available to students, and the experience is worth the cost.

“If the money sets you off, I would definitely just say it’s always going to be worth it,” Gordley said. “It’s always going to come back to the experience is irreplaceable.”

Faculty members from the Global Education Office, including advisor Amy Miller, provided information about applications, financing and incorporating course credits for study abroad programs.

After the event, $500 toward studying abroad was raffled off to student Taylor Maloney.

Ruthann Tesfaye, an international studies major who spoke on the panel, received course credits while studying abroad in Mexico and South Africa. The junior was able to pay for her trips through scholarships and now helps students with essay editing and consulting during scholarship applications.

Tesfaye taught children and adults how to speak English during her trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, and described the experience as inspiring.

“Just seeing kids coming out to classes that they were definitely not required to come to, and just how interested they were in learning, pushed me to do better and not slack,” Tesfaye said.

Speaker Hanan Kourtu said trips to Qatar, Switzerland and Kenya changed her as a person. She recommended that students talk to professors who research topics they’re interested in. 

For Kourtu, it was conducting research and working with Somali refugees in Nairobi, Kenya. She says knowledge of other cultures’ social structures will help her in the social work field.

“When you work with people who come from so many different backgrounds, it’s so hard to be able to comprehend different cultures,” Kourtu said. “You need to be able to take those opportunities, like study abroad or working with specific populations, in order to better serve your clients.”

VCU Globe member Jae Vaughn said he plans to spend spring break in Greece, helping refugees in the area as part of a service-learning project.

“I thought it’d be nice to see what people had to say about going abroad,” the sophomore economics major said at the event. “I’ve never gone abroad in college, so it’s a new experience.”

Sophomore Jessica Dixon, health, physical education and exercise science major. Photo by Hannah Eason

Sophomore Jessica Dixon joined the event because she was interested in studying abroad and wanted to learn more about financing her trip. 

“Sometimes they might commercialize study abroad, but they might not tell you about what actually goes on,” Dixon said. “So I just thought it would be a really nice environment to be able to hear so, and just get the whole aspect of everything.”

The health, physical education and exercise science major said traveling to Spain could help her as a healthcare professional.

“I wanted to be able to learn more cultural competency, not just for me, but also for Spanish speakers,” Dixon said. “I know where I’m from, even in Fredericksburg, there’s a lot of healthcare professionals that are there, but they’re not able to speak the language.”

For more information on study abroad programs to Barbados, Jamaica and other destinations around the globe, visit vcu.studioabroad.com.

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