What Living in France Has Taught Me About the Needs of Minority Students Studying Abroad

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story by matias weedman

Opting to study in France can be daunting, especially with respect to the racial complications students face when interacting with culturally distinctive locals alongside fellow American faculty and students. For both first-time and experienced minority travelers alike, the emotional intensity of immersing oneself in a foreign culture - one which varies regionally in how racial diversity is received -  requires pre-departure preparation beyond the general guidelines provided by host programs and institutions. I believe an additional effort must be made to assist ethnically diverse students in experiencing France differently than non-white peers, particularly given its current socio-economic climate, to facilitate an appreciation of France’s extraordinarily rich culture, historical and geographical sites, traditions and reputed cuisine.

Despite an extensive history of colonization and open immigration policies, France remains remarkably opposed to demographic diversity transitions, largely fuelled by recent economic crises.  With an influx of populations from the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, French politics have experienced a surge in extreme right-wing groups known for inflammatory racial propos, radical anti-immigration policies, and calls for cultural preservation at the expense of modernization and tolerance. Life in France under these circumstances has become extremely challenging to the coexistence of French and foreigners: being followed in stores on the basis of my skin color, or submitted to canine drug examinations on public transportation has become a normalized aspect of my reality as an Arab looking young male.

In light of these issues, minority students may find themselves susceptible to racially and/or politically motivated conflicts during what should be a convivial cultural immersion experience abroad. In my experience, having a resident counselor or health director who is sensitive to social, cultural, and racial differences was extremely important to creating a safe space on campus; one which encouraged students to advocate for themselves. Ideally, this person could assist in student evaluations prior to their participation in the program, individualized pre-departure support and awareness training, assessment of the adequacy of host family placements, and pose as a receptive cultural intermediary.

For students more comfortable dialoguing with members of their identity communities, with whom they share relatable experiences, having an ethnically diverse faculty can be critical to creating a positive and supportive environment. This would render study abroad programs more attractive and accessible for prospective minority students as well, with the comforting knowledge some of the faculty members will truly understand their plight through firsthand experience.

In light of the U.S.’s own longstanding issues with racism and institutionalized social inequality, as mentors and authority figures of considerable influence on students within study abroad programs, faculty members may also counter some of the ingrained prejudices I’ve witnessed American students demonstrate. Because of how formative studying abroad can be, with students being thrust out of their comfort zones and developing new identities and perspectives, students may be more receptive to challenging their preconceived notions throughout the experience than on their respective main campuses. I would love to see programs use their (considerable) resources to incorporate racial and cross-cultural awareness and communication training to their curriculae.

Despite some of the aforementioned challenges of studying in France (and abroad in general) as a minority student, this may not be everyone’s experience. Navigating French culture and politics may even be easier for non-white American students, due to the attached status and value of nationality over ethnicity in France. As a nation prizing American culture and spirit, I’ve certainly profited from proclaiming American citizenship to access a plethora of opportunities otherwise restricted to foreigners, especially those of African or Middle Eastern origin. I would encourage every American student studying in France to take advantage of their temporary faux-pas pardons, and explore activities considered reserved to the upper echelon of French society, such as wine tastings or quality cuisine establishments (the bewilderment of patrons and customers alike can be quite satisfying, I assure you). Minority students abroad especially have the opportunity (and responsibility) to present a new face of diversity to French and Americans alike, by breaking the glass ceiling limiting their social and cultural inclusion.

It remains vital nonetheless for study abroad programs to strive for full inclusivity of non-white students by preparing for how their reality in France may differ at various levels of the experience. I believe minority students should easily be able to access additional resources made available both pre-departure and spanning the duration of the program, such as on-site mentors, cross-cultural communication seminars, and internal counseling. My own transition to France would have been much easier had I access to such a support network.

matias weedman

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Matias is a Diversity Abroad Content Contributor. He has spent over 16 years living abroad in France, Germany and Scotland, and is an avid traveller. He spent a semester studying in Florence, Italy, as part of Syracuse University's Discovery Program, and studies Psychology and Global Security Studies.

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