Several years ago when I first learned about Anna Julia Cooper, distinguished scholar, Black feminist educator, intellectual, and activist, I was dismayed because I had not previously known anything about her. Interestingly, most people I knew outside of my academic friends were not aware of her either. Anna Julia Cooper was born to her enslaved mother in 1858 in North Carolina. In 1925, at the age of 67, she became the fourth African American woman to attain a Ph.D. and she earned it abroad at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. Not everyone can earn a doctorate abroad, but as society becomes more culturally diverse, and while international perspectives are highly valued, studying abroad is an opportunity more students should consider, especially African American students.
Recently, I read that only 10% of U.S. college students study abroad and the percentage is considerably less for African American students. When students immerse themselves in international and intercultural experiences, live abroad in foreign and English language countries, and take part in activities and experiences that engage them into the local cultural milieu, it enhances students’ global awareness and competence. In short, these experiences help to develop students intellectually.
Although study abroad and its impact on student intellectual development is an area where limited research exists, one can find numerous articles discussing how international study changes students’ brain, the way travel teaches beyond the classroom, and that cultural experiences from living abroad have wide-reaching benefits on students’ creativity and creative thinking. I read a study that stated students who study abroad show an enhanced ability to understand complexity, which is one aspect of intellectual development. Although I did not study abroad during my undergraduate years, I was a flight attendant for 15 years and spent a considerable amount of time visiting different countries and learning about other cultures. I can state unequivocally that going abroad contributed more to my intellectual development than my undergraduate studies in the classroom.
When one goes abroad for a significant period, he or she will experience personal growth and independence, develop into an effective critical thinker, and become more knowledgeable and respectful of other cultures. Positive, transformative, and lasting effects occur in the mind because of a meaningful international experience. As a result of immersing myself in other cultures, I developed an interest in French philosophers, gained an appreciation for art, learned another language, and became culturally competent. My worldview changed considerably after traveling abroad.
Not only do students grow and develop intellectually, students with international and cross-cultural experiences have a competitive edge when seeking employment. The necessity of a global perspective for success in just about every industry is becoming more essential, so it is surprising that the overall number of U.S. college students who study abroad is still relatively small. Globalization has led to new pressures on U.S. citizens to have the ability to engage competently in the free flow of ideas, commerce, and communication across international boundaries. Study abroad experiences help students as they begin thinking about career opportunities by offering them the opportunity to embed themselves in the culture of the country in which they live and build cross-cultural competencies. The more we understand other people and cultures, the better we are able to work successfully on diverse teams. An International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century resume. Studying abroad has become an important component in helping prepare students in a global society.
If a student is not able to study abroad, short-term work, internships, volunteer opportunities, or student research overseas are also great ways to have an international experience. Not only are these excellent educational opportunities, they provide students with international experiences and a global network. Study abroad or some other time spent overseas can be a life changing experience by increasing students’ understanding of the world and our society, in addition to appreciating the diversity in our own country; values truly needed in the United States of America.
Dr. Anna Julia Cooper left a rich legacy of study abroad. I would not be the person I am today if not for my extensive international experiences. The story of Cooper’s intellectual production is especially fascinating because at a time when African Americans were just beginning to pursue doctorates in the U.S., Anna Julia Cooper chose to earn her Ph.D. in Paris. Dr. Cooper’s legacy of study abroad has inspired countless Black scholars; my hope is that more African American students will follow this tradition. You can learn more about Dr. Cooper from the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University.
Cynthia Marie is a dynamic public speaker, career educator, facilitator and mentor, empowering students to become global citizens.