Leave Them Woke in Your Wake: 9 Truths for Black Students Traveling Abroad

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You got accepted to the study abroad program of your choice! (woot! woot!). As you get ready for a semester or year full of adventures and the chance to experience a new culture, you may have some typical thoughts that cross every student's mind: What should I pack? How much money should I budget? Will there be Wi-Fi? 

However, as an African-American student studying abroad, your questions go beyond your school or programs FAQ section. But before you get all frantic, chill out, you’ve come to the right place. Consider this your official African-American travel guide with nine empowering tips and five scholarships for the black study abroad experience.

African American man wearing hat and backpack while looking at city

It’s time to break those stereotypes! Let our reflections shine proudly across the seven seas.

Why do we even need our own study abroad tips?

Let’s get real, the African-American travel experience IS different, and despite to the stereotype that says we don’t, black people travel. Like any underrepresented group, traveling abroad comes with its own unique challenges, such as instances of overt racism or just being one of few. According to Institute of International Education, only 5.6 percent of students studying abroad are black. While this statistic represents the current status of diversity in study abroad programs, you shouldn’t shy away from making the most of this life-enhancing opportunity. 

So, we're here to bust the myths about African-American travel with our tips and scholarship programs made just for black students. So without further ado, welcome to the first stop in your new favorite black travel guide—keeping you woke and ready to take on the world.

Let’s get to those 9 travel tips for black students abroad

While a majority of school programs host a series of information sessions you should go to, not all bases are covered (what am I going to do with my hair?) for instance. Here are nine black study abroad tips to know before you go and what to expect when you get there.

1. You’ve gotta get to know your new home.

 Do your homework and research aspects of the culture and customs of the country you are going to be visiting. You should also begin to learn and memorize essential phrases in the native language. While you don’t need to be fluent, your attempt can earn you some cool local friends. It is also helpful to look up the country’s past and current attitudes on race so you are not completely in the dark about what to expect if you should expect anything at all.   

2. Pack light!

What about my hair products?” (trust me, we're getting there). A semester or year abroad is a long time away, but that doesn’t mean you need to take everything with you. Try your best to block out the voices of your parents creating hypothetical scenarios to trick you into bringing things you don’t need. Pack your clothes efficiently, meaning more versatile and comfortable tops and pants, and a pair of shoes you can wear with multiple outfits. Leave more room in your bag for all the cool trinkets you’ll acquire along the way. You'll be way less focused on the things you wore versus the things you brought back from your journey.

3. Put your hair in a protective style.

The black study abroad experience is unique, but being a black girl studying abroad adds yet another layer the African-American travel experience; your hair. For any black girl studying abroad it’s definitely a concern that comes up a lot. Make no mistake, the world would be delighted to see your coils in their full natural glory. But the reality is, between wash-day, deep-conditioning, and maintaining your perfect twist out, taking care of your hair is a time-consuming process. Before you leave for your trip abroad, put your hair in a protective style like braids or twists to keep your hair healthy and moisturized. You can also bring head wraps and headbands for times your hair needs a break. Bring your regular products for style maintenance and you can spend less time on your hair and more time on the adventures that await.

Oprah shaking her head

When strangers try to touch your hair…

[Black Travel Sites to Follow]

4. Sometimes, people are weird.

As an African-American traveler, you are one of few and your presence is bound to attract attention. In some countries, stares and asking for photos is the way some locals will express their curiosity toward you. You will be told you look like every black celebrity imaginable. Others may approach you with “compliments” you find offensive. Despite how strange these encounters might be, take the chance to turn them into positive cultural exchanges. Assume the position of cultural ambassador and leave them woke in your wake.

5. Haters gonna hate, but stay positive.

As a result of stereotypes and the spread of western culture, the image of African-Americans can be distorted. Unfortunately (like, REALLY unfortunately…), there will be people who won’t like you for being you and will act rudely toward you. However, don’t let one sour interaction ruin your trip or the perception of the country you are studying in. Don’t go into things thinking that people are against you either—sometimes you’ll just need to shake it off. Continue to remain open to the culture and people will embrace you regardless of what you look like.   

[READ: Travel tales from African American perspective]

6. You can use your loneliness as a tool of empowerment.

Whether you feel isolation from your cohort or sadness from being the only person who looks like you, know that you are entitled to your feelings. As a minority at home and abroad, it can be mentally exhausting to constantly examine yourself in the viewpoint of others. Instead of getting stuck in this pattern, use these moments to be reflective and empowering experiences. Your identity as an African-American is worth celebrating and being proud of.

Crowded group of African Americans in Sierra Leone where the focus is on one young woman

Acknowledge, embrace, and inspire. MLK would be proud!

7. You should say yes more.

When black people travel there seems to be an unspoken rule about what activities “we do” or “don’t do” while going abroad. But the truth is, we can do anything we want to! Burst the myth about African-Americans travel by saying yes to everything. No true explorer has discovered anything without going toward the unknown. Take this opportunity at a time to take risks and have fun. Your memory will thank you for it!

8. There’s power in the people.

Although western culture has spread globally, black culture is not a monolith. Despite the lack of representation in some regions, African culture spans all across the globe. Take the opportunity while you are abroad to study the histories and see the sights related to this (if there are any). Use social media and online groups to meet up and network with other Black travelers, locals and fellow Black students abroad from other colleges if your time allows. You can do this by searching popular Instagram hashtags like #blacktravel, #blackandabroad, #blackgirlstraveltoo and more. Putting yourself out there can bring your experience full circle and help you experience adventures outside of your travel itinerary. While you are one of few, you are not alone.

[Studying Abroad as a Student of Color: The Good, The Bad, The Weird]

9. Document everything & you’ll become an inspiration for future black student travelers

Take pictures, videos, or keep a journal to document everything that happens on your trip. Keep a record of your experiences not only for yourself, but also for your return. Become a new voice for aspiring and future black students who choose to study abroad. Make a fun project for yourself and create your own African-American travel guide for the country you’re traveling to. The finished product can come in handy for other black students after you. See your experiences as a form of activism, and use your new status a Black traveler to empower your community and suggest ways your university can close the gap on diversity in their programs.

Black woman smiling and touching her hair

Embrace yourself and represent our heritage! 

Study abroad programs that support African-American students like us

The opportunity to study abroad is an amazing and rewarding experience. However, some African-American students shrink from the opportunity citing program costs for reasons not to travel. Below are some of many rewards available for Black students to study abroad without breaking the bank.

1. The Education Abroad Network (TEAN) Need, Merit and Diversity Scholarship Program

Founded in 1995 TEAN is an organization that provides students with internship and study abroad programs based in the Asian Pacific. Scholarships range between $500-$3,000.

  • What you’ll do: Internship and/or study abroad programs
  • Where you’ll go: Options span the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, Cambodia, China, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam
  • What’s next: Read reviews | Visit their site

2. ISA Diversity Scholarship

Since 1987 the ISA has provided students with the opportunity to study abroad with the mission to provide high-quality education at an affordable price. For African-American students planning to go abroad, ISA offers scholarship rewards up to $14,000 to fund student study through the ISA program of their choice.

  • What you’ll do: Study abroad at universities and countries through ISA programs
  • Where you’ll go: The country of your choice across Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific
  • What’s next: Read reviews | Visit their site
African American woman in Ghana sitting next to African souvenirs

African culture spans across the world—use this opportunity as a learning moment!

3. Pacific Discovery Diverse Voices Scholarship

Since its inception in 2001, Pacific Discovery has provided students and faculty-led groups on our experiential journeys spanning the Pacific region. For students experiencing study abroad for the first time the Diverse Voices scholarship awards up to $5,000 per semester for students of color to fund their travels.

  • What you’ll do: Participate in semester travel programs abroad
  • Where you’ll go: Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet, or South America programs
  • What’s next: Read reviews | Visit their site

4. Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program

The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program for undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study and intern abroad programs worldwide.

  • What you’ll do: Study or intern abroad via a program from your home institution
  • Where you’ll go: The accepted program of your choice, anywhere in the world
  • What’s next: Read reviews | Visit their site

5. Academic Programs International (API) Diversity Scholarship

API offers multiple scholarships catered to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Including First Generation, Financially Diverse, and Multicultural scholarships, students who apply are eligible for rewards up to $1,000 for various programs.

  • What you’ll do: Study or intern abroad
  • Where you’ll go: The program of your choice via your home university
  • What’s next: Read reviews | Visit their site

[MORE scholarships for minorities abroad]

African American woman wearing sunglasses and head wrap smiling away from the camera

Leave them woke in your wake 👏🏿

So, what are you waiting for?

The traveling experience is different for everyone based on our backgrounds, our economic status, our race, nationality, and much more. Some things you will experience are out of your control.  Yet in the weighing of pros versus cons, the positive outcomes outweigh any negatives.

Whether you are on your way for your first trip or considering study abroad, the purpose of this comprehensive black travel guide is to empower you and believe that Black students travel too. It is a beautiful world out there, now go and explore it.

To see more experiences and stories download our free eBook “Meaningful Travel Tips & Tales: An African American Perspectives”

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Topics:  Diversity, Travel Tips