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The untold truth of being Black and studying abroad

Ruth Samuel
Sophomore Morehead-Cain Scholar Ruth Samuel poses in front of the Plaza de España. "Here’s me on my second day in Spain in front of the Plaza de España in Sevilla, where Game of Thrones (and I think Star Wars) has been filmed!"

At UNC, only 7.9 percent of undergraduates admitted in fall 2018 were Black. Some students have found that the lack of diversity presents hardships when studying abroad.

Black Students Abroad is a group aiming to give students of color an inside look of the untold truths about being Black and traveling abroad. They help students through the application process and the funding process so that more Black students can study abroad. 

The initiative was started by senior Elise Richardson, who said she encountered many instances where she felt alone and unsafe because of her skin color during her study abroad trip to South Africa, hosted through Honors Carolina. When she spoke to her advisers about how she was feeling, she said she realized they did not have an idea of how to help her, since that they were white-identifying individuals. 

“I realized that a lot of people would probably benefit from having a cohort or community at UNC before they decide to study abroad as a Black student, because a lot of Black students are often terrified to go out of the country for a long period of time," Richardson said.

Richardson said it's helpful for students to have someone to talk to who has also studied abroad and can relate to their experience. Black Students Abroad provides helps students feel prepared and well-informed before going somewhere different for the first time, Richardson said. 

“We'll ask them to ask questions they feel they couldn't ask their white peers or advisers for,” Richardson said. 

Oftentimes when a Black student goes to study abroad, they are the only Black person in their group on the trip, Richardson said.

The number of people that study abroad has increased in recent years, but minority students are still underrepresented. According to NAFSA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to international education, only 6.1 percent of students that studied abroad were African American or Black, during the 2016-2017 school year, whereas 70.8 percent of the students who studied abroad were white.

Richardson said it is hard to find hair products that are useful for Black people when in other countries. Finding a salon or barbershop is not an easy task, compared to how accessible places are for white people and others with straight hair. 

Everyday struggles go further than the inconvenience of self care products, like an awareness of being treated differently than others or being judged by locals. Angela Chin, a senior double majoring in public policy and global studies, experienced some unsettling remarks while studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan.  

“I’m a Black American Christian woman, so I often stood out like a sore thumb,” Chin said. “There were a couple occasions were I felt slighted because of my race or nationality or gender, but it was hard to tell which part of my identity they were addressing.”

Richardson said that in South Africa, she felt that she was viewed as a local instead of an American that wants to learn about South African culture. She said people seemed to treat her however they wanted, which was usually negative. Being a Black woman and feeling like an outsider, she felt that she stood out even more compared to her fellow peers. 

“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. 

Ruth Samuel, a student in the School of Media and Journalism, is currently studying abroad in Spain through the UNC in Sevilla program. Spain is home to over 46 million people, of which only a million are of African descent, according to an estimate in an article by El País. Undaunted by this fact, Samuel followed through with her intentions to become fluent in Spanish. 

Samuel has been enjoying her time in Spain, but said she quickly noticed that blackface is very common amongst Spaniards. 

“We were watching a nationally televised Spanish singing competition in which there was a male contestant in full blackface trying to impersonate MC Hammer while singing 'U Can’t Touch This' in baggy '80s pants and an artificial flat top,” Samuel wrote on a blog post about her time in Spain. 

This was not the only time she has seen blackface while in Spain, either. Samuel noticed products in a local grocery store displaying some resemblance of blackface on packaging. One chocolate brand, called Conguitos, shows a dark-colored chocolate drop on the front with exaggerated red lips. 

Samuel's study abroad experience will end in May, and she said she is grateful for Black Student Abroad for supporting her prior to her departure. 

Black Students Abroad hopes to inform other students and is currently looking for people to join their executive team. Applications are due Feb. 26. 


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