I understand that quite a few of you are choosing to venture overseas through the respective study abroad programs offered at your schools or independently. I thought this post would be timely because when you study abroad, if you will be going along with other non-black female students, considering your living arrangements, you may encounter what I call covert tricks used by other non-black females (and sometimes black, although I have rarely heard this to be the case) while studying abroad. The absolute number one rule to follow is to put yourself first! I think the best way to speak on this is to tell of a few study abroad experiences I heard from fellow students, and speak about my own.
While in undergrad, I heard about some of the things done to my black female friends while they were away on study abroad trips that were frequented by a majority of the white students at their school. More often than not, the main culprit in covert tricks were white female students. These "tricks" were just another way of being passive aggressive. A frequent trick was to do things as a group, and deliberately not invite the black female student, or invite the black female student at the last minute, meanwhile everyone else seemed to have gotten the memo well in advance. Some black female students alluded to being treated as if they were the "mammy" of the group. The tag along "mom" that kept everything in order or held the purses, or took the pictures for everyone, basically the "help." If the black female student rejected the mammy role, she was considered a threat, and further shut out from group activities. This turned out to be really negative for some of my friends when they went on study abroad. However, many of them stated the locals did not exhibit the same type of behavior and when they spent their time meeting and getting to know the locals, their experience improved.
I studied abroad in London for a full semester. I was one of only 2 black girls on the trip. The other young black woman did not seem to embrace me early on despite my efforts to forge a bond, and appeared to connect better with the white female students, so I mostly kept to myself. I was cordial with everyone, but was also aware that their extension of inclusion was not being offered to me the way it had been offered to others on the trip. The other students were white. I was from a different school than the university that offered the study abroad program, so some students already new each other. However my main point is this: Immediately upon arrival, the white students were friendly at the onset, but eventually broke away into their own social groups. One way they did this, as I later found out, is they would go to dinner together, or to pubs, etc. and I would never know until after the fact. When they made plans to go anywhere outside of the city or the country, the email that was sent out somehow omitted me and a few other white male outliers in the group. By the time I knew of their plans, they had already travelled out of town for the weekend and Facebook updates would display pictures of their adventures. Thankfully, my experience with living on my own in a few cities where I had to create a lively experience for my own happiness and well being, helped me navigate what was happening, successfully.
Strategy One: Why am I here?
I knew the majority of the other students had disposable income to spend it eating out every night, partying away getting drunk, and traveling to other cities. I, however, was not keen on spending my stipend on those things. Furthermore, I did not want to spend time trying to "get in" with people who didn't really value me enough to make sure I got the memo for their weekend travels or late night escapades. Instead, I focused on finding out about employment prospects in the city for Americans like myself, and networking my head off to make solid contacts. Have those business cards ready! Sounds like fun? Some may say no, but it was worth while to me. I landed not one, but two internships in my short time while there. I also knew I was there as a young single and attractive (I like to think so) black woman who was open to love. I even got encouragement from my mother to open my online profiles and change the city to my study abroad city. That is precisely what I did, and enjoyed every moment. I also joined a few meetup.com groups and penciled in their events into my schedule. In addition, every chance I had free time outside of class and my internships, I was not in that flat. If I had to study or read for class, I was out at a coffee shop, bookstore, library, park, or any establishment with wifi. When I wasn't studying, I was out and about exploring the city. Being in a city like London has so much going on, there is no excuse to be holed up indoors irrespective of the weather. I went to conferences, book signing events, clubs, museums, restaurants, shopping centers, festivals, you name it. Some I did with a few people on the program, many I did with new people I met in the city or while on dates, and a great many of them I did happily by myself (this proved very helpful in meeting other men as they were very interested in helping me with whatever I needed, or flirtatiously chatting me up.)
You do not need the study abroad group (and their covert tricksters) to embrace you in order to have an amazing study abroad experience. You simply need to determine what will make the experience great for YOU, and proceed accordingly. I can only laugh at the perplexed look on some of the other students faces when I chimed in to our professors on Mondays about how much fun I had at a local event in the city over the weekend. It was as if the other students assumed I just stayed at home and did nothing given their disinterest in including me on their weekend outings. lol.
Strategy Two: Know my way around the area
I had never been to the city before. But, I knew it was great with public transportation. I could take the tube (underground), the bus, or a taxi. I went on the website for Transport for London and tried to get a good idea of the tube lines that ran close to where I would be staying in the city. I carried a mini map of the tube line and a small notepad with directions I had written down to be sure of where I was going. In my handwritten directions, I included buildings and sites that would help me be confident in finding certain destinations. Use Google Maps! Use your phone's GPS! If you're bold enough, you can always use the "cute lost girl" act to ask the handsome guy how to get to your destination as well. I also made sure that I new which buses had stops near to where I lived, and near to an area that I was familiar enough, to be able to walk the rest of the way home if I had to. As soon as I arrived, I purchased an oyster card (travel card to get around and easily pay for travel fare with the tube and buses) and a cheap cell phone. I also had a list of reputable cab numbers to call and ALWAYS had emergency cash on hand.
While many of you may not have extended family in your study abroad country, it is pretty common for Caribbean or African young ladies to have relatives in Europe and other parts of the globe, particularly in the UK given the colonial history. As such, reach out to them before you go. They may provide another safety net for you as someone that you are tied to through familial bonds who can be a point of contact if there is any emergency or if you need to know how to get somewhere. I did this, and felt even more empowered, as this is a built-in network to your advantage. For those of you without family in your study abroad countries, check in with your professors, colleagues, or friends. Often, the professors we respect at our own universities will have colleagues they know in the city who would be willing to speak with you about your goals, interests while visiting the city, and answer any questions you have etc. The bottom line is maximize your network through who you already know (think: six degrees of separation). Use your Facebook, or LinkedIn, or any other social network you frequent to help you with knowing your way around. Once I knew the city, no matter what happened, or what "trick" was pulled, I always had someone to call and a way to get back home to safety.
Strategy Three: Get your money and budget for the days you will be there, in order.
Some of you may not have to worry about having a budget. The rest of you should get an idea of the currency in whatever country you are traveling to. Unfortunately, the U.S. dollar is weaker than the pound in the UK, so it would be very easy to spend a lot more than you intended if you don't keep calculation of exactly what you are spending in American dollars. Again, this is something that is personal to each of you. Step 1 should help you figure out how to prioritize where to spend your cash to maximize whatever you are seeking. I knew eating out would be nice. However, I knew I could cook enough to last through the week, and pack my own lunches every now and then to have more money for doing fun social stuff in the city (this doubled as a great way to watch my figure). Some of you may not have any bills or major expenses to pay. However, others who do may consider subletting the apartment (if your lease allows) so that the monthly rent doesn't have to come out of your pocket. Call up your internet and/or cable provider to see if they will put you on the seasonal status (for however long you will be out of the country) and save expenses there. Prepay the expenses if you can for the duration of your study abroad so you can spend your energy fully present on your trip. A wonderful way to be budget savvy is to talk with locals on where to get the best deals on purchases like groceries. This also doubles as another networking opportunity.
Strategy Four: Get your health and body in order and/or maintain it.
Depending on where you will be spending your study abroad, this may not apply to you. However, if you are traveling to a more developed country, you may be able to enroll at the local gym for a reasonable price. I signed up at the local gym closest to where I lived and met lots of interesting people while there. I also did a search on natural hair salons in the area. I was able to meet some great women while getting my hair done, and scheduled to do fun social activities with them outside of what I planned for myself. Also, when you go out, make an effort to put your best foot forward in how you package yourself. It is to your advantage as a black woman in any country when you make an effort to present yourself as well groomed in a flattering and feminine way. Smiling is key here. I used this, as well as my lovely American accent, to my advantage because I knew people would be more open and welcoming to an American black woman with a gentle smile as opposed to whatever stereotypes about black women existed there.
Strategy Five: PLAN fun and adventure into your schedule every weekend!
If you are completely embraced by the people on your study abroad and are content with hanging out with them, great. If you are all too often singled out or uninvited with your study abroad group, take the time to research the fun and exciting things you can do while in the city on your own. Taking the time to plan at least one fun thing each weekend will lift your spirits and reinvigorate you for the next week. It will also demonstrate the reality that YOUR fun and happiness is within your control. Reach out and grab it!
I know that every country is different. Take whatever you can apply and use it to your own gain. Feel free to share your pointers for study abroad or how you navigated through some of the covert tricks you saw happening while on study abroad.
About Young BW Determined to Live Well
After being a faithful reader of various blogs dedicated to positively influencing black women, I recognized quite a few young black women in their teens, 20's, and 30's who were touched by the message as much as myself. This blog is my attempt to reach out and connect with young black women on issues we may be facing at a very transitional time in our lives. I encourage all, irrespective of age, class, origin, etc. to participate in the discussions and brainstorming sessions we have. I look forward to the potential of this blog and hope to hear from Young Black Women Determined to Live Well like myself!