For The Student Activist Abroad
By January of my sophomore year, I was feeling emotionally and physically drained. It was almost as if all of the energy I had mustered over a lifetime had been sucked out of me by my academic and social situations, as well as the political climate. I had been working over twenty hours a week, spending necessary time healing from personal trauma, as well as delving even deeper into advocacy work. I had made the decision to apply to study abroad at Queen Mary, University of London at a perfect time. I couldn’t see myself living a healthy, productive life on my home school’s campus at the time. On all levels, I needed time away.
Determine Your Personal Needs and Wants
As someone who considers herself a student activist, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to branch my social justice work from home with my abroad experience, while also allowing myself to create a space necessary for rejuvenation and simply being a student. In the States a lot of my work revolved around writing, workshopping, and lobbying around racial and economic equity, reproductive rights, positive body image, and de-stigmatizing mental health issues. My advocacy work was and is more than a hobby- it is my passion, one that I felt I could not leave behind if I wanted to bring my full self, ready for growth, to London.
A great deal of thought and planning has to go into what someone wants and needs from their semester or year abroad. I was deciding between service-based learning programs and traditional academic programs. I found that by having a balanced course load that reflected my academic and advocacy interests within the traditional academic programs, I could move forward in a manner that felt right for me. In the end, I felt that Queen Mary had the global, open-minded community I needed and wanted to be an activist abroad.
Research The Climate
Doing thorough research on the political, social and other important climates of one’s destination is also extremely important for those who decide they want to be very active with their activism abroad. While it is impossible to fully grasp what a place is like from what books or the internet may tell you, it does present students with the opportunity to see varying perspectives and to take their first step into social justice conversations within their destination. It is also important that when engaging in these discussions in person, on or around one’s campus abroad, that they attempt to come from more of a learning, rather than teaching, perspective. No amount of reading can equate to a person’s life experience, and it is important to move within these respects as one tries to engage in a more global way.
During my first week, I made the decision to connect with student groups on campus that were complementary to the balance that I was hoping to achieve in London. I attended the interest meetings of a creative publication, the school’s radio station, and one of the ethnic identity groups. Within these three choices, I felt like I would be able to find different, engaging communities that would still leave a great deal of flexibility to focus on myself and allow me to truly enjoy my abroad experience.
I had a conversation with my flatmate and friend, Filmon Abraham, who also considers himself to be a student activist, about his experience in grappling with what and how to prioritize when going abroad. He entered the abroad experience with years of advocacy work and knowledge from his time as a student on his campus in Washington, especially with being the president of the Black Student Union. During our talk, he stated that for him, being a student and being an activist were not parts of his identity and passions that he could separate.
…Or Not (Which is okay, too!)
For students who decide not to necessarily remain as active, in a social justice sense, as they are at home – do not feel guilty. The work can be taxing. The abroad experience can be a time for exploring new passions, delving deeper into what academia can offer, or even about slowing down the pace. Building kind support systems, which includes being kind to one’s self as well as having people who provide positive, forward-moving energy, are key to the abroad experience as a whole. No matter what direction one decides to take, it is important to remember that the goal of study abroad is to explore, transform, and experience. Only you can decide what that means for you.
Rachel Godfrey is an African American Studies and Science in Society double major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is currently studying abroad with IFSA-Butler in England at Queen Mary, University of London for the Fall 2017 semester. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.