TOKYO — When Ricardo Parras flew across the Pacific to study in Japan, the turbulence he encountered was of the emotional variety.
Having grown up in predominantly Hispanic Los Banos, Calif., Parras missed being surrounded by Spanish-speakers. He also missed his relatives, some of whom could not understand why he chose to travel more than 5,000 miles to work toward his college degree.
“In Mexican culture, family is very important,” said Parras, who is studying international business at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.
The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last two decades as students increasingly see the professional, academic, and social advantages. Overseas experience can enhance resumes, strengthen language skills, and has been shown to increase graduation rates.
But it’s an opportunity first-generation and minority college students like Parras are less likely to get.
Nonwhites make up just under 40 percent of U.S. college and university students, but only 24 percent of study-abroad participants, according to the Institute of International Education.
Blacks — who make up 13 percent of all students — account for 5 percent of Americans who study abroad, and Hispanics 7.5 percent, compared to their 11 percent share of enrollment overall.
Demographic studies show that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately likely to be poor and the first in their families attending college.
Photo: Samantha Rios-Arizala had to struggle financially to afford the cost of studying in Tokyo, but believes the extra effort will be worth it.
Low-income students not only struggle to pay for study abroad, which can require such costs as air fare and passport application fees on top of tuition; they also tend to come from families with less knowledge about it, or may assume that study abroad is solely for more privileged classmates.
The Institute of International Education has set a goal of doubling the number of American students studying abroad over the next five years, with a focus on boosting participation rates among groups including low-income students.
“Study abroad is basic training for the global economy,” said Daniel Obst, the institute’s deputy vice president.
That’s why they’re doing it, said lower-income and minority Americans studying in Tokyo, among several other reasons; some were fascinated with Japanese culture or spent time there in the military.
Yet the obstacles they had to overcome — including skeptical relatives and limited budgets — speak to the challenges of expanding access to study abroad.
Jamal Burke, who is black, was long fascinated with Japanese anime and video games. But when he told his relatives in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of his desire to study in Japan — a country none of them had ever visited — they thought he was joking.
“My mom was the only one who realized I was serious,” Burke said.
Parental wariness and misunderstanding occurs across all income levels and ethnic groups, said Paul Gaspari, the student-services coordinator for Temple in Japan. But he said the concerns can be heightened for low-income parents whose children are the first in their families to go to college.
“They don’t know what to expect from college in general,” Gaspari said. “And now their child is at a college overseas and they are like, ‘What’s a visa?’
Another barrier: the cost.
When Samantha Rios-Arizala, whose mother is originally from Ecuador, decided to study at Lakeland College Japan, she faced a more arduous path than her wealthier classmates: She worked long hours in a computer store to save money for a ticket and her first month’s rent, and scoured plane fares every morning for weeks before finding a New Year’s Day flight she could afford.
“I had to fight to come here,” Rios-Arizala said.
The new initiative spearheaded by the Institute of International Education aims to make it easier for students like Rios-Arizala, partly by spreading the practices of institutions that have already improved access and equity in study abroad.
For instance, Spelman College, an historically black women’s college, encourages all low-income students interested in overseas study to apply for a Gilman Scholarship from a national program that offers financial support for study abroad to recipients of federal Pell Grants. And Temple has a “passport scholarship” for which students can apply if they have never had a passport.
The institute is also trying to reach out to community colleges, which serve high numbers of minority and low-income students, but send fewer than one percent abroad.
Parras, who transferred from a community college to Temple in Japan, said he hopes his experience will not only help him find a job in international business, but inspire his own children to study in another country someday.
“What is life without challenges?” he said. “Years from now I will be able to tell myself and my kids, ‘I actually did that? I can’t believe it.’”
[This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.]