Taking The Leap Into Study Abroad As An Underrepresented Student

The decision to study abroad comes with a lot of questions: Where will I go? Will I receive enough credits to stay on track for my degree? Can I afford my ideal program? And studying abroad as an underrepresented student has a unique set of challenges and opportunities to consider. In episode 10 of the Students Beyond Borders podcast, we sat down with Aminah King, a USAC Chiang Mai alumna, to talk about her experience studying abroad as an underrepresented student.

Episode 10 Highlights

What does being an “underrepresented student” mean to you?

I graduated from UNR, with degrees in criminal justice and political science.

I’m a black woman. I’m also a first-generation student and I basically self-support myself through college. So, when I say underrepresented, it was in the sense that I went through college with not as many of the privileges or resources as some of my other peers may have had that did not have my background.

What was your perspective on study abroad as an underrepresented student before you applied? Did you think it was an unrealistic goal when you were starting to explore it, or did you think it was something tangible that you can make happen easily?

The funny thing in my case is, until I was in my advisor’s office, and she brought up study abroad before that I hadn’t even really thought about travel or leaving the United States. At that time, I didn’t even own passport. To say that I never really thought it was for me; it wasn’t even on my radar, it wasn’t because I didn’t have a passport. I could barely afford going to school as it is. I was working in times two to three jobs just to afford to go to school in the United States.  I definitely relate to that sentiment because in the beginning I did not think studying abroad was for me.

What changed was my advisor. She told me about the opportunities and I kind of looked over the information. I came back and I kind of treated like a business transaction. I was like, okay. I need to know where I can go back and actually get credit for my degree. Because I don’t want to be behind because if I’m behind, I have to pay more money to be in school. And I need to know how much these places costs. And she gave me about six different programs, and I went home, and I researched them all with that much money they are. To be honest, I didn’t think it was for me, but if I’m going to make this happen, I need to think about this strategically.

And I’m glad I did, because I found out that it was pretty possible. It just takes a lot of work, but it was possible.

Did you have an aha moment when you thought “I need to make this work for me and I’m going to do it?”

The funny thing about the first time I saw my advisor and she talked to me about studying abroad, it was while I was working full time (grave shift), I was doing two summer classes. So literally I was not getting any sleep. I was stressed out and she was like, you know, if you want a break, you should go study abroad. At the time I was worried about school and making money and taking care of just those things. So that was the summer and fast forward to about wintertime. And I was really looking at this and I’m like, yeah, I need a break. Like I wanna get outta here.  But also I felt this guilt  like I have family here. I have bills and responsibilities, but, kind of the moment was like, you know, I’m going to do something for me. I’m going to step out of my comfort zone. To be honest, it was kind of just this gut feeling. I  pushed myself. I was like, okay, we’re going to do this.

What challenges did you face when planning your study abroad – both personally and externally?

For planning my study abroad, I would say personally, the biggest challenges were this sounds weird, but believing in myself, like thinking I can do it. At the end of the day, for me, I really stepped out of my comfort zone. I went from being scared to even go, and I having a passport to actually left before my program started. I was traveling around Thailand by myself for the first week. Tt really was, a mental, emotional, journey of just believing myself, stepping outside of my comfort zone and kind of learning my own potential, my own capabilities.

As far as external, definitely was money was one of my biggest concerns. Because as I said, I worked like at times two to three jobs. So, I didn’t know all the time how I was going to pay for school. When I was in the United States, I had no idea how I was going to pay for life outside of the country. That definitely was a fear of mine. And that’s why scholarships and all those different things were literally instrumental.

Were you confiding  in other people who had studied abroad? What was the decision process like for you?

The hard thing I think, is that there isn’t a lot of representation of black woman in general study abroad, living abroad, going to travel.

I think I have an uncle that has gone to a couple places like Mexico, but traveling and all that stuff was never even something that I knew of, that I’d seen, that I had a clear representation of in my head of what that looked like. So I think for me, I kind of built this thing. [Saying] I can pave a new way in a way for myself and my family.

I think at the end of the day, I think the lack of representation can make you feel like you don’t belong there. If you don’t see yourself somewhere, sometimes if you’re looking at the pictures and you don’t see one that shows someone that looks like you, you can kind of psych yourself out to think, “Oh, I don’t belong there or I’m not supposed to be there. This isn’t for me at the end of the day.”

What funding was available to you when you studied abroad? How did you hear about scholarships?

For me specifically, the biggest help for me to be able to fund my study abroad was becoming a Gilman scholar. I’m a Gilman alumni. I say that was the biggest help because that’s the biggest amount of money I received towards my study abroad.

Outside of that, it was meeting with the scholarship team, who at the time, was Sonia. She was a big help for me and helping me figure out what scholarships I could apply for what was available.

I applied for the Freeman Asia, scholarship. And like I said, I received the Gilman as I’m alumni. The Gilman scholarship was instrumental for me. It’s specifically for underrepresented students, so you have to be a recipient of the Pell Grant, which you will find out when you fill out your FASFA, all those things in case you are, fresh coming into college.

How did you actually end up choosing Chiang Mai, Thailand? Did race and diversity play a role in your decision in which program you chose?

Like I said earlier, I talked to my advisor and I think she had me six different programs, because my first thing was that I didn’t want to get behind in school. So if I go anywhere, the classes need to apply to my degree, which at the time, I was a political science and criminal justice major.

sMy first thing was looking at the price of each one. I can’t remember all of them. I think one of them was Cuba. Another one was  in Europe or something like that, but I picked Thailand mostly number one, because like I said, I had the classes that I could use also the cost of living there and the cost of the program, I think was a big decision for me.

But also I just wanted to do a program that was outside my comfort zone. I feel like not to down Europe or anything like that, but I wanted to have an experience that was unlike anything I’ve ever known.

I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to step up. If I’m going to take the leap, I’m going to jump all the way. So I wanted to go somewhere that was a culture that I had never seen before food that I’ve never had before, people that I’ve never interacted before.  That was a big thing for me.

I knew that there wasn’t going to be a lot of people there that looked like me. And that was a little worrisome, but at the same time, there’s just something in me that just wanted something new and different. If I’m going to use this time to be able to see another part of the world and go out of the country, I wanted to see something that I’d never seen before.

What was it like living in Thailand as a black person, as a black woman? Were their perceptions of race different than they are in America?

I will definitely say, especially now, because at that time I was 2019, but now we’re talking 2020. I would tell anyone now that I felt more comfortable as a black woman in Thailand, than a lot of times I felt in the United States. But there were challenges. I don’t want to discount that.

So I knew that going there, there was not going to be care products that I use in the United States. Like they don’t have natural hair products in Thailand because people there, they don’t have hair like mine, but also things like makeup, going into a makeup store, there was no shade of makeup that matched my skin.

I learned when I was in Thailand was they see race, different races, kind of, it’s like a competition of curiosity. I did have experiences where people were taking videos and pictures of me saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re black,” and I interacted with some people that either had very little or no interaction with black people before they met me.

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