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American Councils Celebrates Black History Month

February 22, 2023

American Councils Black History Month Header



American Councils is grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month. We also recognize that Black students face significant barriers to studying abroad. In recent years, we have prioritized increased access for Black American students and other groups traditionally underrepresented in study abroad and educational exchange programs through such initiatives as the Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship Fund, which has provided $100,000 in scholarships for study abroad and cultural exchange programs since its inception in 2016.

Since 2020, the Open Doors Report has reported a decrease in Black and African American representation in study abroad programs. According to the 2022 Open Doors Report on U.S. Study Abroad, only 4.1% of all reported U.S. students studying abroad in the 2020-21 academic year identified as Black or African American. In comparison, Black students made up just 6.4% of study abroad students in the 2018-2019 academic year and 5.5% in 2019-2020. Though the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread travel restrictions exacerbated this change, American Councils was disappointed to learn about this trend.

As American Councils continues efforts to provide greater access to study abroad to underrepresented students, we want to honor Black History Month and the perspectives of Black participants who add value and insight into the benefits of cross-cultural experiences. This year, American Councils has the honor of speaking with alumni of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) and National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NLSI-Y) programs.

Xavier Evans, Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program 

Xavier Evans smiling

Xavier Evans is an alumnus of the 2021 CLS Chinese program hosted virtually by the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan. He is a senior at Harvard College studying Computer Science and Linguistics and has taught English to Chinese students for the past year. Since childhood, Xavier has been drawn to Chinese given its reputation of being “one of the most difficult languages in the world.” At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xavier began learning Chinese as a passion project, which brought him to the CLS Program.

Through CLS, Xavier had the opportunity to improve his speaking proficiency, connect with students in Taiwan, and share aspects of his identity as a Black man with a global community. However, entering an East Asian language classroom—albeit virtually—did not come without discomfort.

“The communities which speak the languages I studied before CLS—Spanish and Portuguese—are comprised of many Black people,” Xavier says. “It was never a concern that I would stick out in these classrooms as the only Black person. When I started learning Chinese, however, I knew that would no longer be the case. I would potentially be the only black person I would ever see in my Chinese classes. That obviously struck some fear into my heart.”

Yet, Xavier did not let his discomfort get in the way of engaging in a global classroom, sharing his insight on race and American culture with his newfound Taiwanese friends, and gaining a deeper appreciation for diversity in the United States. Studying within a more mono-ethnic community, Xavier was confronted by many misconceptions about race and Black culture. For example, Xavier’s language partner and host family did not know he was Black, basing their conceptions of blackness on representation in American media. “They expected a dark-skinned Black person, and since I didn’t fit that definition, I wasn’t Black in their eyes.” Xavier saw these misconceptions as an opportunity to share cultural context on the legacy of slavery and structures of white supremacy in the United States.

Black hair was another popular topic of conversation with the Taiwanese people. After putting his hair in braids, many of his new friends were confused by the sudden change in his appearance. Xavier took time to explain the cultural significance of Black hairstyles. “Our hair is deeply rooted in our culture, and it goes far beyond a mere ‘fashion statement,’” Xavier shared. “Giving my Taiwanese friends that background was a lot of heavy lifting, and this cultural sensitivity is something I take for granted living in a society as multiethnic as the United States. There was a lot we needed to catch up on, and I obviously received a lot of cultural insights from them in return.”

After these moments of difficult cultural exchange, Xavier reflected on the representation of Black people in international education. “I think if the commitment is not made to uplift black people—if we’re not getting Black people into these spaces, then people are not sensitized to their stories,” Xavier explains. “Additionally, when Black students don’t see themselves represented in spaces, they are more hesitant to enter them. Yet, we need people of all backgrounds in all classrooms so we can solve the myriad problems that can crop up between any combination of communities. I know that I can use my Chinese skills to serve my community when the need arises, and that wouldn’t be a possibility if Chinese classes were composed exclusively of Asian and white students. I am doing my part to pave the way for future generations of Black learners of this language so they can feel safe and welcome in this space.”

With graduation coming up in just a few months, Xavier hopes to continue his international education journey in the fall by finally going to Taiwan in person to teach English. Upon returning to the states, he plans to combine his background in Computer Science with his interest in language learning by pursuing a career in language education technology.

To read more about Xavier's experience studying with CLS, click here.

Robae, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) 

Robae in Jordan

Robae is an alumnus of the NSLI-Y 2022 Summer Arabic Program in Amman, Jordan. Growing up in Baltimore, Robae noticed that many in his community had never traveled outside of the United States or Maryland. By studying abroad, Robae wanted to influence his community by helping others learn more about global opportunities and citizen diplomacy.

Robae's time in Jordan helped him dispel some stereotypes he held about the Middle East. While on the program, he realized that many of the generalizations and stereotypes about the Middle East he had previously internalized fostered fear and othering of different cultures. From this, Robae learned "not to be too quick to judge people and to not generalize a group of people based on things I've experienced from one or two people." This lesson remains prominent in Robae's life, as he says he has benefitted from learning about Arabic culture, language, and politics. "I am so glad that these things have stayed with me even back [home] because they made me a better, less judgmental person," said Robae. "I am eternally grateful for that because I long to gain a pure, untainted understanding of the world around me."

He notes that he often had to serve as his advocate in Jordan, making him more comfortable sharing his opinions and knowing his contributions were valuable. Robae observed culturally different views of race. He did not experience prejudice as a black man. Instead, he felt that he was treated equally. He tried to use people’s feelings of curiosity about his background as educational moments, learning to walk with confidence and being open to difficult conversations on race and U.S. culture. He continues to use his experiences to try to "always be an exemplar of black excellence and to not let people's preconceived notions make [him] shy away from sharing and showing [his] experiences as well as [his] black boy joy."

Besides gaining linguistic and cultural skills on the program, Robae became interested in social anthropology and linguistics, which he is considering studying at university. He has also gained more confidence in speaking and learning foreign languages, which has pushed him to join his high school's World Language Honors Society.

To read more about Robae’s experience with NSLI-Y, click here.


Damien Johnson, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y)


Damien Johnson in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.Damien Johnson is an alumnus of the 2022 Summer Russian Program in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Damien's time in Kyrgyzstan was instrumental to his personal growth in various ways. Damien was initially inspired to study abroad to challenge himself and grow his Russian skills. He sought a program that would allow him to grow as a person while introducing him to new experiences. Damien had a motto of accepting each opportunity that came to him, and he took every opportunity to immerse himself in the local culture, practice his language skills, and make a plethora of new memories, including excursions to museums, trying new foods, and playing soccer with local teens.

Damien bonded strongly with his host family and peers, other NSLI-Y students, and his Kyrgyz peers. "I believe that my connection to my family and friends is the strongest and most lasting impact from my experience," Damien reflects. "Even miles away and hours ahead, there is nothing that can cut the tether connecting me to the people I bonded with, and I know that I'll visit them again soon." He is proud of how he built a personal connection and strong bond with his host family, even when his Russian skills were at a lower level upon his arrival.

Damien looks forward to using what he learned through NSLI-Y in his professional and academic endeavors. Damien hopes to continue studying Russian in college and participate in additional regional exchange programs before pursuing a career abroad. 


To read more about Damien’s experience with NSLI-Y, click here.

A list of resources for Black students studying abroad: