Taking a Closer Look: Beyond the Beauty of Study Abroad

By Natalie Aguilar

It is safe to say that most college students nowadays know someone who has studied abroad. Perhaps your feed has been clouded by posts consisting of what seems like a thousand pictures; the “living my best life,” or “I can not believe this is real,” captions and Instagram stories displaying the mundane, the beautiful and the culture of said country. Many say that their lives changed or that it was the greatest thing that has ever happened to them, and while these are real emotions and feelings that happen when looking back at such an incredible and privileged experience, one thing stood out to me throughout my time in Argentina: that the complexities of ethnic identity travel with you and transform into something different in your host country.

Dinner with host parents can be slightly awkward, usually pleasant, but mostly ordinary.

Half way through my time with them, however, there was a change, and several bizarre comments were made at the table.

“If you learned anything about indigenous people in the United States, the ones in Chile and here are the same. They are all the same. All they do is sing songs in circles, smoke tobacco pipes, beat on their drums and wear rags,” said my host father after my housemate commented that she learned about indigenous people in class.

Hearing them demonize and devalue indigenous culture or people of color in general became commonplace and all the more uncomfortable as time passed. A simple starting point such as saying I was traveling to the north of the country that borders Bolivia, would turn into a twenty minute rant as why those communities were inferior to city folks; one key difference being that they had a “different ‘tone’ of skin.”

“There is a clear distinction between civilization and barbarism. Barbarism can not compete with civilization because they are inherently not capable of achieving the same things. Those people live in the mountains and are illiterate, you can’t bring someone like that to the city, they could not survive.” WAITING FOR ATTRIBUTION

In Latin America, Argentina’s history with white-washing its population is a definitive one. Several presidents spearheaded whiteness campaigns that consisted of genocide against African Americans and indigenous populations, bringing in waves of European immigrants to inhibit and populate the land.

Currently, the country’s population of 43 million is comprised of 97 percent of residents who claim European ethnicity.

Celia Lacayo, a fellow at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, spoke to “The Code Switch” podcast on NPR about Argentina’s “success” in racial whitening and its effect on people of color. “We know that people from Argentina, not all, but generally speaking, are very proud of their European ancestry, specifically Italian, to mark themselves as white — not to be confused with those others who were “contaminated” with indigenous and Afro-descended blood.”

At SUNY New Paltz, one of my majors is Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Within that major, I learned about Latin America’s ongoing struggle with colorism; where members of a racial or ethnic group actively discriminate and have prejudices against those of darker skin colors. This hierarchy of color, in which lighter skin is favorable and darker skin is demonized, is a clear continuation of the caste system of colonial times where classifications based on specific bloodlines and skin colors determined your place in society.

In those moments with my host parents, I realized that what was once learned in the classroom, became real. It became as personal as to question my own livelihood- the skin I live in. Did they think I was inferior because of the color of my skin? Or was I one of the “good ones?”

Unfortunately, other students of color have also experienced similar instances abroad.

An article by The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, details how student Elise Richardson felt alone and unsafe during her time abroad.

“The hardship is being alone and not being able to talk to someone about that experience in your program because you may be the only Black person that you know, or that you even see on your day to day in that whole country,” Richardson said.

To prevent other students from feeling the same way, she created Black Students Abroad, a group that provides resources during the application and financial process for students of color. The initiative has been helpful for students to have someone to talk to who has also studied abroad and can relate to their experience since oftentimes, when a black or brown student studies abroad, they are the only people of color in that group.

According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, white students accounted for 70 percent of all American students who studied abroad in the 2017-2018 academic year, even though they represented only 56 percent of all enrolled college students. Meanwhile, Black, Hispanic/Latinx and Native students were all underrepresented in study abroad participation compared to their overall percentage in the American college student population.

Surely, the conversations with my host parents did not prevent me from enjoying my time. I witnessed gorgeous landscapes, made special connections with other students and had the chance to immerse myself in a culture like never before. Every region of Argentina is special in its own way, whether it be rich indigenous roots, a booming capital city, or quiet towns near nature preserves, all of it is worth seeing. I could not have done that without the inspiration of other students of color to take the leap, professors and scholarships such as the Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship that promote diversity abroad.

It comes down to accepting the fact that it is okay to have a study abroad experience that isn’t picture perfect. Ultimately, conversation, support and empowerment for students of color should take place so they may not deter from taking advantage of an opportunity of a lifetime and become the representation that is desperately needed in study abroad participation.

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