When we talk about study abroad, we tend to focus on a couple of things: homesickness, culture shock and language barriers. But I want to shine a light on an aspect of studying abroad that we may forget, or at least take for granted in all of the panel discussions and columns: the lack of diversity one might experience in a new environment. In all the preparation I did for my year abroad at the London School of Economics, I quite readily forgot about that. So let this be a first step in explaining the situation to all future abroad students that may find themselves suddenly surrounded by ignorance and discrimination.
Unlike some of my peers, it wasn’t a deliberate choice of mine to attend Wellesley for its historically women’s college status — that was simply an aspect of the institution akin to the charms of the lake — I chose to come to Wellesley because it seemed to be the best fit for me academically. After moving to London, I came to realize that being surrounded by the many capable, intelligent and insightful people at Wellesley was a privilege. Suddenly, I was thrust into an environment in which I was the only woman of color present in a 20-person classroom (depending on if the only other woman of color came to class). The classroom discussions especially made this evident and I quickly grew frustrated beyond measure. With the lack of diversity of course came an increase in ignorance. I found myself defending things that shouldn’t need defending in 2019, and pushing back against issues of racism, sexism and every other -ism that have plagued societies for millennia. As adamant as I had been to leave for a full year, I was shocked, and frankly a bit horrified, to realize that I missed Wellesley. To explain and rile against every distasteful classroom interaction in London I’ve had would go beyond the means of this entire newspaper, so instead I would like to provide three pieces of advice for dealing with ignorance in the classroom that I hope will prove useful to anybody preparing for their own time abroad.
First, hold your ground. I’ve learned that many significant issues are still treated like a joke to many people, but if you’ve got the floor, make sure they hear you when you tell them how their behavior is damaging to the people around them.
Second, educate and listen. Though this may be a generalization, I’ve come to see that the many instances of ignorance I’ve encountered in London don’t necessarily come from a malicious place — it’s a case of “they didn’t know any better.” The excuse only stretches so far, but antagonizing the ignorance only allows it to steep deeper into a person.
Finally, take care of yourself first. Educating others cannot happen at the sake of your own welfare, and it isn’t your job to erase ignorance when you see it. Reach out to your class teacher — it is partly theirs.
All this isn’t to say that Wellesley is immune to ignorance and discrimination of its own. Wellesley students can hold just as many prejudices and harmful biases as any student, even ones across the pond. This advice is relevant at home, too. But it’s safe to say that it’s not fair that we must act as teachers as well as students. So if you’ve still got a little bit of patience and fight left, maybe my advice will help guide you in steering your classmates to foster a much more inclusive environment.