On June 4, 2020, the Forum on Education Abroad's Forum News focused on "Anti-Racism & Social Justice in Education Abroad", a series of thought pieces from their colleagues of color, in the study abroad field. In this edition, they featured an essay from IES Abroad Assistant Vice President of Diversity Recruiting & Advising, Gretchen Cook-Anderson titled "Channeling Study Abroad as an Instrument of Social Justice & Equity in a Post-Pandemic World"—read her powerful statement below.
As the Assistant Vice President of Diversity Recruiting & Advising, Gretchen oversees efforts to increase enrollment and enhance the study abroad experience of diverse students. Gretchen is a marketing and PR professional with more than 10 years of experience in international education. An IES Abroad Nagoya alum, Gretchen holds a Bachelor's degree from Spelman College and a Master's degree in International Economics from Johns Hopkins University. An award-winning professional, Gretchen and her team's efforts have increased enrollment of ethnically-diverse students by 151% since IES Abroad established the diversity initiative more than 10 years ago. In 2019-20, their efforts led to ethnically-diverse students making up 27% of the IES Abroad student body just prior to the pandemic.
I am an evangelist for study and travel abroad. Some use knowledge of medicine to cure illness, deliver new life and expand access to public health. Some use the power of the law to right wrongs and advocate for those without a voice. I use my knowledge of travel, cultures, and places to cultivate global citizens who reflect the world’s rich diversity. This is my form of social justice. This is my platform for change. And, the horrific incidents of racial injustice over recent weeks, including the linchpin murder of George Floyd, reinforce why I do the work that I do.
As we emerge from this historic pandemic, change and adaptation have indeed become our reality, our uncomfortable, pushy new companions in life. We left one world behind last winter. And, an altered world bows before us, awaiting students, and the rest of us, to eventually explore it again.
"The work we do cultivates diverse global citizens who will be on the forefront of forging a brave new world as we emerge from this pandemic..."
We must work feverishly as a field to foster and make concrete the concept of “One World,” and to remind our neighbors, colleagues, students and friends of the humanity we amplify through our efforts. The work we do cultivates diverse global citizens who will be on the forefront of forging a brave new world as we emerge from this pandemic – and we must ensure they’re armed with the empathy, compassion, anti-racism mindsets, intercultural responsiveness, and capacity for innovation the world needs.
And, so I find myself, as many of us do, seeking ways to preserve this unique launchpad to social justice with equity not only intact, but exponentially expanded. I want to see us catapult global education to its rightful place in the hierarchy of drivers of human progress and diversity.
For more than 25 years I’ve had a professional’s front-row seat to observing how travel changes people—women and men, black, white and other. Travel humanizes us. It expands our potential by honing our language, intercultural and other skills, and, deepening our capacity for humility, empathy and fairness. It forces us to reconsider how we think about history, politics, migration, commerce, technology, health care, education and community. My own experiences changed my way of looking at “the other side” of everything. And, it also taught me that I’m never really alone, despite how big and scary and impersonal the world might seem to some. The world, herself, became my friend. And, all of humanity evolved into my extended family.
The smaller the world became in my mind, the bigger my ambitions grew to fight for humanity in whatever small ways might ripple across borders.
"I’ve found there’s poetic beauty in others’ differences – the smoothness, kink or curl in their hair, the lilt in their language as it slides off their tongues, the mosaic hues of their skin..."
I feel empowered in my difference when I travel. I’ve found there’s poetic beauty in others’ differences – the smoothness, kink or curl in their hair, the lilt in their language as it slides of their tongues, the mosaic hues of their skin, their regal religious garb, the salty, sweet or savory of their food, and the sound of their laughter or cries. In recognizing that beauty in others, I also found it in myself. And, to me, that too feels like a kind of equity in the outcome of study abroad.
Sociologist Helen Fein coined the phrase, “universe of obligation,” to define our network of people who we care most about and to whom we remain connected even in times of crisis. People tend to shrink that “universe” in troubled times, to those who are like us and turn our eyes away from those who may be “different.” Rather, study abroad pushes students to stretch and expand their universe of obligation. Their sway in turn reverberates to peers and others in their sphere of influence.
We have a compelling, ground-breaking opportunity ahead. And, though it will not happen overnight, as we emerge from this pandemic, thousands of education abroad professionals like you and me can boldly bring global education to more students, in more ways, more safely, across more cultures, and with greater dividends than ever for humanity.
So, in memory of my then-enslaved ancestors and lost family members like my uncle, Ricky Byrdsong, and the perished with familiar names like Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, I will decisively continue this work in the time ahead – hopefully in partnership with all of you – to expand diversity and inclusion in a field that is an antidote to hate, prejudice and racial injustice here and around the world.