Diversity in Academe 2013

Studying Abroad at Home

Courtesy of Paula Hirschoff

In the winter of 1963, Willie Mae Carey Wilson, second from right, became the first Knoxville College student to spend a semester at Macalester College, as part of a civil-rights-era student-exchange program. The Macalester students are, from left, Mary Oesterhuis Snyder, Marilyn Hoff, and Nancy McMartin Henderson.
June 09, 2013

As the civil-rights movement gained momentum in the early 1960s, historically black colleges in the South and predominantly white institutions across the nation began collaborating on student-exchange programs. Students would spend a semester on another campus, often mingling with people of another race for the first time in their lives.

I was one of them. Last year I attended the 50th-anniversary celebration marking the founding of an exchange program between Macalester College, in Minnesota, and Knoxville College, a historically black institution in Tennessee. As participants from both colleges reminisced on the Macalester campus, we agreed that our experiences shaped our lives in crucial, inspirational ways. We shared cherished memories of cross-cultural discoveries and recalled wrenching but maturing moments spent navigating another culture. We became more confident in unfamiliar settings and more sympathetic to concerns of members of the other race.

The program's impact was more subtle than that of the era's protest marches and sit-ins, but many of us believe that experiences like ours significantly contributed to our nation's long trek toward better race relations. We made strong personal connections by living together in the dormitories, participating in campus groups and civil-rights events, making friends, and visiting one another's homes. The cultural immersion was often more intense than the overseas experiences that colleges offered at the time.

Interest in domestic-exchange programs between historically black colleges and universities and majority-white colleges dwindled by the 1970s, due to integration and the advent of affirmative action. But in many ways the need for such programs is as strong today as it was then. Americans remain polarized—in our houses of worship, in our neighborhoods, in the media, and, as we have seen in recent years, in our government. We are communicating less across political, religious, and economic divides. Members of Congress from different parties once socialized together on weekends but now head for their home districts once the week's business is over. Their reluctance to work together and compromise on legislation has been blamed in part on a lack of personal connections.

But what if more of us traveled to another region of our own country to live with people from different backgrounds while we were young and open to new viewpoints? Foreign study-abroad programs are ubiquitous in academe. Some are exotic and prestigious, taking students to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Even high schools are involved: One alumnus of the Macalester/Knoxville exchange, who teaches at a private boys' school in Manhattan, told me that his students have been all over the world, but few have ventured into black communities of the rural South.

But what if students at urban universities did exchanges with those on rural campuses? What if atheists went to live on Christian campuses? What if tribally controlled American Indian colleges regularly operated exchanges with mainstream colleges? Many students attending the 37 colleges in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium would probably be interested, says Carrie L. Billy, the consortium's chief executive.

Some colleges continue to operate domestic study-away programs, with varied goals. Spelman College, a historically black women's institution, sends 10 to 15 students a year to other colleges, according to DeKimberlen Neely, an associate dean of undergraduate studies. Spelman students, who can choose from 26 different colleges, may participate because they want to check out graduate schools or challenge their abilities in a different environment for awhile.

A smaller number of students from other colleges study at Spelman as well, with several coming from Barnard College during the most recent academic year. The visiting students are usually black, and for some the experience of attending an all-black college offers a new cultural experience. A Middlebury College student who studied at Spelman, and who is black, said she wanted a change from the "Eurocentric slant" that she encountered in some classes at her home institution. At Spelman she found her courses to be "really rooted in the black community" but was struck by the lack of diversity on the campus. She concluded that Middlebury was better preparation for the real world.

Many colleges, of course, offer semester-long programs in Washington, and some have their own campuses in the capital. But for most colleges that offer off-campus programs, a focus on broad national goals is not the major purpose. Individual enrichment seems to play a more important role. Many students who participated in the programs of the 1960s were motivated by a desire to be involved in promoting civil rights or improving race relations. If the programs were expanded and promoted as a way to heal those social divisions, today's students might take a keener interest.

Sometimes cultural-exchange efforts can lead to conflict. Cultural "diplomacy" was a theme of the cross-country bus tours of religiously conservative colleges and military academies that Soulforce, a nonprofit group that promotes tolerance of gay rights, undertook in recent years (and is planning for next year). The Soulforce delegates attempted to mingle with students and foster discussion of sexual-orientation issues. While some visits resulted in hostile receptions and arrests of the visiting activists, some of the colleges visited no longer punish students who openly discuss their sexual orientation by suspending them or forcing them to undergo therapy, says Soulforce's executive director, the Rev. Cindi Love.

But Washington semesters and bus tours to build tolerance cannot provide the type of immersion in another culture that the exchange programs of the 1960s fostered. Looking back at those exchanges is more than an exercise in nostalgia. A critical understanding of what we did then could open a pathway toward finding solutions to contemporary problems. Alumni of the civil-rights-era programs remember learning to tolerate and absorb new ideas, to compromise, and to work together for social change.

As an anthropologist, I know that the divergent opinions and ideas in this huge nation are largely cultural in origin; to really understand them requires communication and immersion in the environments that nurtured them. Domestic exchanges could provide students with cross-cultural experiences as valuable as (and potentially far less expensive than) the study-abroad programs that proliferate on campuses today.

Paula Hirschoff is a writer and anthropologist in Washington, D.C.