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Alone But Not Lonely: Providing Transformative Study Abroad Experiences for All Students

The descriptions of studying abroad in Germany and returning to the United States are adapted from Ronald A. Crutcher’s memoir, I Had No Idea You Were Black: Navigating Race on My Road to Leadership, published this month by Clyde Hill Publishing.

When I was a college student in the early seventies, I received a Fulbright scholarship to study cello and musicology in Germany. Although my parents were not particularly pleased that I was going abroad for an entire year, I found the experience of being separated from my family, friends, and culture in a foreign country to be transformative. In addition to learning how to be alone without feeling lonely, I also developed a different, more global mindset as a Black man.

I’d arrived in Germany as a young man, hyperconscious about my race and feeling that it separated me from everyone. But I eventually became so comfortable in Germany that the thought of leaving tore me apart. I kept my return ticket to the United States on hold for four years, extending my Fulbright and getting jobs teaching cello at the Bonn Music School and performing as principal cellist in a professional chamber orchestra.

Five years after I arrived in Germany, I felt more European than American, and for the first time in my life race no longer dominated my psyche. At one point, I became so enamored of that world where musicians were revered and Blacks were not ostracized that I considered never returning to the United States at all.

But as my thirtieth birthday approached, I began to think seriously about what kind of future I wanted. I knew a family would be part of it, and the thought of raising children in a place where they would be removed from their roots as Black Americans left me cold. For more than sixty years, my mother’s family had held reunions each July—would I want my children to miss out on this rich tradition? I couldn’t bear the thought. America was my country, warts and all.

I made my decision one day in mid‐August, and a week later, my cello and I boarded a Lufthansa flight back to America. My first six months home were rough. Weekly, I had to fight the urge to get on a plane and fly back to Germany. Where was home, really?

Living abroad had provided me with an unexpected vantage point on the uglier realities of life in the United States. There were so many things about American culture that bothered me. Highways, overwhelmed with billboards that blocked out the mountains and trees, offended my eyes. At Christmas time, I went shopping with my younger brother, staring in disgust at displays filled with cheap merchandise. For a moment I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to flip the tables, like Jesus in the temple. I was so agitated that I had to sit in the car while my brother continued browsing. And then there was the extreme disparity in income between Black and White people, which manifested itself most notably in the kinds of educational opportunities and the quality of housing they were provided. All of it grated.

Eventually, I reconciled myself to living in the United States, and Germany came to feel like a second home. I now know that my experience studying abroad helped me come to terms with what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “double consciousness” of the African American. As a result, I no longer suffer the trauma of seeing myself through the eyes of a racist society. Rather, I am proud of the capabilities that have helped me to persevere in spite of these challenges.

Throughout my forty-four-year career in higher education, I have looked back on these formative experiences and encouraged my students and mentees to study abroad. Studying abroad is, of course, one of the many high-impact practices that contributes measurably to student growth, development, and change. 

I have always been attuned to equity issues in higher education, and when I first arrived at the University of Richmond as president in 2015, I asked to see disaggregated data about our undergraduate students’ participation in all of our high-impact practices. Between 2007 and 2015, our student body had become incredibly more diverse, both racially and economically, and I was curious to see if students of color and low-income students participated in high-impact practices to the same extent as White and higher-income populations. To my pleasant surprise, this was in fact the case with every high-impact practice except study abroad. 

While almost three quarters of our students have some type of study abroad experience, students of color, in particular, were only half as likely to study abroad as their White peers. When we delved into why this was the case, we learned that some of these students faced significant cultural and economic barriers. We learned, for instance, that some students had to send money back home to their families and simply could not afford to give up working to go abroad. We also learned, not surprisingly, that many Black and Brown families feared having their children travel abroad for a variety of cultural reasons. They either feared that their children would not be treated well by people in a foreign country, or they felt that they would not be able to have access to their cultural cuisine. 

In 2019, our very creative dean of international education, Martha Merritt, collaborated with our faculty and developed the EnCompass program, which offers fully funded, faculty-led international experiences to students who are least likely to study abroad: first generation students, students of color, student-athletes, STEM majors, and male students.

All of our students in higher education should have access to transformative high-impact practices like study abroad. My own experience of learning how to be alone in another culture helped me reach the highest level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self‐actualization. But I needed to leave America to do it. Without Germany, I would not be the American I am today.

Ronald A. Crutcher is president of the University of Richmond.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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