IFSA | February 8, 2021
We are proud to profile one of IFSA’s National Advisor Council (NAC) Inclusive Excellence Working Group members, Ms. Maraina Montgomery. Ms. Montgomery serves as the Assistant Director for Study Abroad in the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at Howard University in Washington D.C. Additionally, she is a respected contributor to NAFSA, Diversity Abroad, the Forum on Education Abroad and The PIE News.
Where did you grow up?
As a kid, I ran wild all around the state of Colorado, where I was raised as one of five children to parents from Los Angeles and a stepmom from Iowa. Navigating the cities, suburbs, and most memorably, a small mountain town called Guffey undoubtedly shaped my interest in and comfortability with building community domestically and abroad.
What influenced your decision to attend an HBCU/Howard and participate in education abroad programming?
My decision to attend Howard University was influenced, wholeheartedly, by my very first visit to the campus and to the city known as “Chocolate City,” as a high school student. The sight of driven and thriving Black people, communities, and culture within one of the most diverse cities in the US caused complete culture shock. But at HBCUs, like Howard, we as students were/are empowered to show up completely, think critically, be expressive, creative, self-defined, and limitless. As a young Black person, once you sample that kind of emotional liberation, there is no other choice than to attend an HBCU and/or Howard.
My call to participate in study abroad while at Howard also came from a seed that was planted during high school. Following a four-week service-learning program in Oaxaca, Mexico with Amigos de las Americas, I was determined to spend more time learning about the Spanish language and culture within their native contexts. As a student of Anthropology and Spanish at Howard, studying for a semester in Alicante, Spain, another in Santiago, Dominican Republic, at a summer archeological field school in Belize, and conducting research in Mexico helped guide me to doing work within the field of education abroad today.
Work with Students
What has driven you to work in International Education?
The IE community is my tribe! I find this to be a profession in which I feel a sense of belonging, purpose, and acceptance. Furthermore, I have a vested interest in the mental, spiritual, physical, and collective liberation of marginalized communities worldwide and for this reason, I do this important work. I believe that study abroad is a social justice cause, especially one that is invaluable to minoritized Americans.
In 2016, the Ralph Bunche Center/ Bison Abroad Office began promoting the hashtag #StudyAbroadSoBlack to encourage Black study abroad students to make their international experiences visible and inspire others to go abroad. What impact do you see this hashtag having on the students you advise?
On November 18, 2016, #StudyAbroadSoBlack was first used by our office on Instagram (@HUBuncheCenter) to highlight the success of our first passport drive (done in partnership with We Go Too, a Fabulous Black travel group)! The hashtag started as a tool to aggregate online content related to the experience of Howard study abroad participants and is now being used by students (and IE professionals) at other institutions. By establishing the mission and vision, the movement has become solidified and more sustainable.
At Howard, I see how the boldness of the hashtag speaks to students and gives them a sense of affiliation, community, and connectedness. HU students get excited about not simply the opportunity to use the hashtag, but more importantly, the experience of being part of a growing movement. Throughout the advising process, during their time abroad, and finally upon their return, study abroad participants engage with each other through social media, 1:1 with me and other peer advisors, collectively, as Ambassadors on campus, and in their communities. Many of them have taken note of how the concept of study abroad has changed over the course of their time at HU. Graduating seniors who studied abroad are beings recognized for having helped craft the image and vision of the #StudyAbroadSoBlack movement. Personally, my favorite response to the hashtag happens when I facilitate the pre-departure orientation and hear students willfully proclaim in unison the final line of the #StudyAbroadSoBlack manifesto that “…I understand that I am a part of a movement that will impact the entire world.” This simple digital tool has led to the co-creation of a beautiful culture and community at HU and beyond.
DEI Work in the Field
In May 2020 you wrote a PIE News article discussing that the Covid-19 disruption to our field could significantly set back our collective work towards equity and inclusion in study abroad, both in terms of student participation and the diversity of staffing in our field. Eight months later, where do you see things?
The past eight months have been remarkable in many ways. The number of workshops, discussions, collaborations, and creative ways that technology has been leveraged to connect people from different disciplines, countries, and institutions was once inconceivable, but essential for most of us. Our field was talking about everything that was collapsing- or being torn down by force- around the world, and why it was happening. Time felt fragile, yet more abundant, and more folks with privilege were using it to learn more about systemic injustices that formerly may have never felt like a “big deal” when they were more hidden in plain sight. Other folks, may have gone inward and reassessed personal priorities and ways of being. With all of this action, many are inspired to believe that so has come change, an increase of collective awareness, greater sensitivity, and a renewed sense of hope.
I have seen many organizations are announcing new education abroad positions and some have even heightened the level of effort to recruit professionals from minoritized backgrounds. I have also learned that many of the professionals of color who were let go at the onset of Covid, whom I wrote in the PIE News Piece, have found new positions outside of education abroad, started their own businesses, or simply taken the opportunity to return back to school for another degree.
Change abounds. This semester will reveal students’ level of excitement to get out into the world to study abroad. This spring the challenge will remain to attract their interest and attention remotely now that fall study abroad is a viable option. And many of us are rolling out the 2.0 version of creative initiatives that were “invented” at the height of the pandemic last year. For example, Howard University, Morgan State, and Prairie View will continue to collaborate on virtual programming, especially for ‘Global Black History Month’ and incorporate more staff and students at other HBCU campuses based on last year’s positive feedback.
As the Covid vaccine is distributed and campuses and providers ramp up study abroad programming, what do you feel is critical to keep in mind when working with Students of Color in the age of Covid?
This is a challenging question to answer. I feel compelled to highlight the reality that students of color are especially resilient, and have likely faced more trauma, drama, and discomfort than the average study abroad student over the course of their lives. This said it is important that our field be mindful that this population has also experienced the negative impact of Covid-19 on their families and communities at a disproportionate rate and they may be more exhausted and heartbroken than may appear visible on the surface. The process to study abroad and the overall experience may open up extreme feelings that we will need to be prepared to hold space for, as professionals. I imagine positive feelings could include joy, relief, freedom, and renewal, and more challenging emotions may include heightened sensitivity around finances and/or feelings of guilt related to leaving others in possibly less desirable circumstances. I also imagine students expecting to understand that a sound emergency plan is in place, including a strong academic continuity plan, in the event of another emergency/disruption while overseas.
Work with IFSA
You are generous in giving IFSA your time and attention amidst your many responsibilities at Howard and the other ways you engage with DEI in the field. What do you specifically enjoy about engaging with IFSA?
Collaborating over the past year and a half with IFSA as a member of the Inclusive Excellence working group has been a rewarding opportunity to gain a “behind the scenes” look at how IFSA “makes its sauce.” For example, our group was invited to review materials and provide feedback on a detailed approach to facilitating more inclusive on-site orientations. I appreciated learning more about the thoughtful thinking behind the approach and having the space to incorporate the feedback, values, and perspectives of the students I serve at Howard in the planning process. It is also gratifying to share time and ideas with dedicated professionals at other great colleges/universities, as we engage in conversations aimed to inspire action and positive outcomes at IFSA in support of social justice and student development.