Sophomore year marks a time when college students begin to plan for their future careers. As a rising junior who has yet to secure a formal internship, I have found myself drowning in Penn's pre-professional culture, feeling that I have not taken sufficient advantage of Penn Career Services’ opportunities. I know I am not the only one who feels this way. Many students flock to Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO) and Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) in hopes of getting on the fast track to securing a job post-graduation. Attracted to career-building networks, there is a direct input and output with these programs: interns get to code, consult on projects, operate systems, and develop the skills their future professions require.
I see a majority of my classmates taking this traditional route to develop their professional skills. Meanwhile, my college summers have been fairly nontraditional. Although I feel behind the curve, one thing I have embraced during my time at Penn is the abundance of travel opportunities. After my first year, I embarked on Penn Madrid and traveled independently all around Spain. My sophomore year, I was selected for the Perspectives Fellowship and studied conflict while in the Middle East, learning more about the political, cultural, and religious tensions in the region. With my travels, I have gained soft skills unconventionally, learning how to work with others outside of the traditional professional environment.
Yet I noticed something in my time abroad — the shortage of Black students. When I was studying in Spain, there were only two of us, and that affected my experience significantly. Initially, I felt isolated. I didn’t share the communities that other students were a part of or their interest in certain tourist attractions. It was difficult to not only integrate into the social dynamics of non-Black Penn, but also adjust to practices of Spanish culture. It took a while, but I began to acclimate after a couple of weeks, breaking out of my shell and finding new friends to spend time with on campus.
Recently, while talking about our summer plans, one of the students from the Perspectives Fellowship mentioned that they would be partaking in an internship abroad through a program specifically for Jewish students. This moved me, as I feel racial minorities are rarely afforded special programs for travel. Most opportunities aimed at minority students, specifically Black students, are to provide professional internships. From J.P. Morgan Chase Advancing Black Pathways to BCG Growing Future Leaders to Google BOLD Internships, there is an abundance of opportunities to support Black students interested in careers in finance, consulting, technology, and other popular fields.
While these programs are necessary in assisting students and diversifying the corporate workforce, underrepresentation is not unique to the professional world. According to the Institute of International Education, only six percent of American students that studied abroad in the 2014–2015 school year were Black, despite making up 15% of U.S. higher education enrollment. Yet, 73% of students abroad were white, while making up only 58 percent of the student population.
This disparity is due to three factors: finances, family, and overall awareness. Students often decide that they want to study abroad before college or early in their college career; however, students of color are rarely exposed to these opportunities and frequently find out too late. Even if a student is interested, it’s still tricky to navigate all the steps necessary to apply. Given that, underresourced students are at even more of a disadvantage.
My friends feel as though their major makes it difficult to seek these opportunities, their summer jobs restrict their schedules, and their parents will not like the idea of them leaving an Ivy League institution. Traveling is seen as a distraction, interrupting students’ academic and professional trajectory. Many families believe students will get swept up in leisurely activities while studying abroad as opposed to staying focused on grades and building a sustainable network for a future job.
While these factors are incredibly significant, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the benefits of studying abroad. International exposure broadened my perspective and deepened my interests in affairs outside of the U.S. During my time abroad, I became confident and exercised my independence. I learned to budget for quick trips, navigate new cities, and socialize with different people. I also got to practice my Spanish skills and immerse myself in the study of a foreign language on-site. Not only did I grow as a person from this experience, but it positioned me as a competitive and marketable job candidate.
Many Black students are often drawn to SEO or MLT because they offer job security — a stability that has not always been promised to Black people. But, traveling abroad should be considered more of a priority. To me, the emphasis on Black students building their careers solely through hard skills stems from the notion that Black people are only valuable in what they can produce — an idea that is the legacy of slavery. Soft skills, such as adaptability and problem solving, are important in the professional world too. Studying abroad promotes soft skill development, and Black students are deserving of more programs that will encourage this personal growth.
Penn has the tools to remove some of the obstacles preventing Black students from pursuing opportunities abroad. Scholarships, fellowships, and specialized programs could all be solutions to alleviate the disparities that deter Black students from traveling abroad. Imagine if there were minority-centered versions of Penn’s Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) or Penn in Cannes. Not only would these programs cater to the educational aspirations of students, but they would also help close the racial gap.
As I embrace a less structured summer, I am motivated to explore what a valuable education looks like beyond campus. Normalizing opportunities outside the classroom and workplace may be a step in redefining what success looks like for marginalized people. These opportunities have shaped my Penn experience and have taught me just as many, maybe even more, practical skills than any course.
ADEOLUWA FATUKASI is a rising College junior studying communication and Africana studies from Potomac, Md. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.