When it comes to participation in international exchange programs, representation among minority students, low-income students, and community college students in the United States trails other demographic groups.
Pandora White, Vanessa Diaz, Sean Funcheon, and Ashleigh Brown-Grier are hoping to change these inequities through their Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund (CDAF) grant project, We Are America - Increasing Diversity in Exchanges. The team, which includes alumni from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, Critical Language Scholarship Program, and Peace Corps, hosted the WeRepresent 2021 Virtual Conference from March 10-12, 2021. The conference addressed the inequities of international exchange programs by directly targeting minority students, low-income students, and community college students and providing them with resources, information sessions, and the encouragement of relatable role-models.
“One attendee was near tears thanking me for putting together the conference. I think that was rewarding to know that we were creating a place to talk about international exchange,” said Pandora White, CEO of WeRepresent.
White also noted that interest in the conference exceeded their goals. When she wrote the CDAF grant for the WeRepresent conference, the goal was to have 10 alumni speakers. Instead, the conference featured over 60 alumni speakers from the United States and overseas, demonstrating the genuine interest and demand for more of these conversations which benefit not only minority serving institutions, but all universities.
According to the WeRepresent team, disparity in international exchange programs is due to inconsistent levels of support for international opportunities at U.S. colleges and community colleges, specifically Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Many students at these institutions are unaware of scholarships to combat limited economic resources and have difficulty finding relatable role-models and mentors. Leveraging alumni insights and fostering personal connections from the WeRepresent conference was a key objective of the program, empowering participants to build a network before beginning an exchange program.
During the conference, potential future participants connected with Fulbright, Boren, Critical Language, and Gilman Scholarship alumni at no cost to attendees. The WeRepresent conference team showed participants how exchange alumni are empowering students while promoting diversity and inclusion in international exchange.
The Future of Exchanges
Is there a future for WeRepresent? White, an alumna of the Gilman and Fulbright programs, says, “For this conference, we set a modest attendee goal since it was the first time and we had a small budget. We reached the number of attendees we wanted. However, ultimately I don't think that's enough, which is why another We Represent conference is needed.”
When speaking about whether or not to do an international exchange, Pandora says, “Do it. It will change your whole life. Apply for every scholarship you see, talk to your study abroad office and if you don't have a study abroad office, email WeRepresent and we can help.”
The Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund for U.S. Alumni provides small grants to teams of past and current U.S. citizen participants of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs to carry out public service projects using the skills, knowledge, and networks gained during their exchange experiences. This funding opportunity is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Partners of the Americas, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).