A photo of 12 people standing in front of an arch
From overseas programming to on-campus communities, VCU is looking to expand access to global education opportunities for students. (Contributed photo)

VCU working to expand its reach in supporting international education

As study abroad grows, diversity of opportunities and diversity of audiences are ‘top of mind.’

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With Study Abroad Day approaching on Feb. 26, Virginia Commonwealth University is emphasizing the diverse ways – and diverse populations – that reflect global opportunity in education. From overseas programming to on-campus communities, VCU is looking to expand access to what can be life-changing experiential learning.

“VCU is such a diverse institution and has high numbers of students who are underrepresented in education abroad nationally,” said Stephanie Tignor, director of global learning in the Global Education Office. “All of the things that we do as an office have that top of mind.”

One of its programs is Black + Abroad, an event series co-sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. The student-focused program emphasizes first-hand accounts of overseas study, and this year’s gathering on Feb. 27 features a panel discussion exploring the nuances of global citizenship and international travel for Black students. VCU also has $500 vouchers available to encourage pursuit of study abroad opportunities.

“It’s really important to utilize representation as a way for Black students to see themselves studying abroad,” Tignor said.

One component of this year’s program will feature Black international students discussing their experiences studying abroad in the U.S. Tignor noted that a student from Africa may have a very different experience in this country than an African American student.

“The global learning department is working to intentionally bring together VCU domestic students and VCU international students for mutual benefit,” she said, citing such connections as a key element of campus-based global education.

Another example is in the Gladding Residence Center, where the Global Village is a GEO-sponsored program-in-residence that connects cultures and communities. Throughout the semester, lectures and workshops spotlight international students – for instance, a Feb. 19 sushi-making night at West Grace North featured visiting students from Shimane University in Japan.

“These kinds of campus-based learning experiences bring students together to broaden perspectives and create community,” Tignor said. “The person-to-person interactions provide an opportunity to explore culture and help foster mutual understanding. Students may become more curious, and seek more cross-cultural engagement, like studying abroad which offers an opportunity for students to learn more about themselves and other cultures, and examine global issues and their place in the world as part of the solution.”

A photo of two women holding plates of shushi.
VCU’s Global Education Office hosts opportunities for students to participate in global learning through workshops and lectures hosted by visiting universities. This is a sushi-making workshop hosted by students from Shimane University in Japan. (Contributed photo)

In other opportunities, the GEO is partnering with VCU’s federally funded TRIO program to host a service-learning trip to Las Canas in the Dominican Republic in early March. TRIO supports first-generation and low-income students and those with disabilities, and Tignor said those underrepresented populations should be sought out for inclusion.

“First-generation students may enter college without prior knowledge or consideration of engaging in a study abroad experience,” she said.

To encourage participation in the March trip, which coincides with spring break, organizers selected a more accessible destination in terms of flight cost. They also created a weeklong program, rather than a semester-long one, so students with jobs or other responsibilities at home could better accommodate the trip. And the timing, during spring semester instead of summer, can allow students to tap into existing financial aid.

“Money is often cited as a top barrier to study abroad,” Tignor said.

The GEO offers scholarships to facilitate study abroad. Among them, the Airfare Voucher Award uses miles the university accrues and donates them to students. The newest is the L&L Friendship Fund, established in 2023 through a roughly $2.5 million gift from an anonymous donor.

The GEO is now offering students and employees free passport photos. Many Americans don’t have a passport –and don’t know how to get one. “We don’t want the process of applying for a passport to be a barrier, so we are making it easier and want to demystify the process,” Tignor said.

And before or during overseas travel, students can access a library of resources that help them navigate issues related to aspects of identity, from cultural norms to finding services such as hair care.

In addressing potential concerns and barriers for underrepresented students up front, “we hope our study abroad participants more accurately represent the rich diversity of VCU’s student body,” Tignor said.

A group photo of five people
Black + Abroad is a student-focused event series that emphasizes first-hand accounts of overseas study. (Left to right) Kennedi Woods, Poria Burleigh, Dazia Williams, Sofia Simmons and Donte Jackson participanted in the event last year. (Contributed photo)

Slated for the last Monday in February, Study Abroad Day builds on International Education Week, a joint initiative of the State Department and Education Department that is held in the fall. For more about studying abroad and scholarship opportunities, visit global.vcu.edu/abroad/