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Opinion: Now, More Than Ever, Black Students Must Experience Black Life in Black Countries

By Jessica Sinn

image of student studying abroad

image of student studying abroad

When I reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement and the many viral images that have galvanized protesters into action, my mind keeps going back to a disquieting video that did not result in belligerent shouting or bloodshed.

The quiet, seemingly uneventful home surveillance footage captures a young Black boy shooting hoops in his own driveway. When he spots a police cruiser in the distance, he quickly ducks behind a parked car and waits for it to pass before resuming his game. It was just another day in the life of a Black boy in America.

I also watched a video of a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, being shot in the back while running from police officers who later stomped and stood on his lifeless body. He, along with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black citizens, was unjustly murdered by the police.

image of Devin walker
Devin Walker is the director of global leadership and social impact at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founder and director of the 100 Passports program, which provided free passports to Austin-area middle school students while preparing them for a trip abroad to Beijing, China.

This is the reality Black Americans live in—and it has been this way for generations. Now is the time to expose our African American youth to the world outside of America. To do this, parents, school administrators, educators and donors need to prioritize and support financially accessible study abroad programs designed specifically for students of African descent.

As the director of global leadership and social impact at The University of Texas at Austin, I have been taking large groups of students—mostly African American—to South Africa and China for the last eight years. In Cape Town, we experience a world where Blackness is normalized—in the streets, in the shops and in the halls of Parliament. In Beijing, we explore a cultural history so different from our own, which is deeply steeped in white domination. While each country grapples with issues surrounding anti-Blackness, the students I travel with consistently reflect on their feelings of liberation from the constraints of being Black in America.

A moment I often relive happened while dining at Mzansi Restaurant in Langa, Cape Town. As we were listening to the sounds of a local band, the owner, Nomonde, walked over to our table and told us, “You are home. This is your home.” As I glanced around, many students were in tears. In this moment, they felt seen, they felt whole, they felt fully human. We all did.

These moments can change everything, especially for underrepresented Black students who often feel like imposters in their own country. Unfortunately, these students continue to be underrepresented in study abroad programs. According to a report by the Institute of International Education, African Americans represent just 6.1% of the students taking their studies overseas and experiencing these small yet powerful moments. It does give me hope that more programs are working to provide African American youth with international travel opportunities. Organizations like Birthright AFRICA and Movement: Black Youth Abroad are taking students on heritage-exploration trips to countries in Africa and to regions of the African diaspora.

Now, during this national moment of reflection, I’m hoping more efforts will be made to bridge systemic opportunity gaps in education—including access to world travel. Given the emotional toll of growing up Black in the United States, it is critical for students to journey to places where they can realize America is just one chapter in the book of life.

I find myself thinking back to that video of the boy playing basketball and worrying about whether this is the only world he’ll ever know. I hope one day he’ll travel abroad and experience what it’s like to not be a racial minority—and when he returns stateside, I hope he will use his newfound knowledge and sense of self to demand change. I know this is possible because I have seen many of my former students go on to champion social justice issues upon their return, even at the Texas State Capitol.

Traveling abroad is, of course, not the panacea for the 400-year-old disease of racism and white supremacy. However, it has the power to radically transform how young Black Americans see themselves, their citizenship, their humanity and their ability to change the world.

“Black Boy” author Richard Wright wrote, “I was not leaving the South to forget the South, but so that someday I might understand it.” Although this quote refers to the Southern experience, it also applies to so many of my students who had to step outside of this country to envision the possibilities for change upon their return.

This article first appeared in Diverse Issues in Higher Education in Sept. 2020.