Study abroad is more than just about traveling — it’s a social justice cause

By Kimberly Cortez | October 5, 2022 4:58pm

Canva by Kimberly Cortez

Surrounding the tall black gates, reporters, families, locals and police lined the streets of London. Some joyfully cheered and others silently watched as more and more people joined the crowd. On any other day, 10 Downing Street would be just another tourist site for people to take pictures in front of or a street people pass on their way to work. 

But for junior Nicole Rooney, she was witnessing history unfold in front of her while studying abroad in London this past summer.

“I went the day that Boris Johnson announced his resignation,” Rooney said. “Dr. McRee had encouraged us to go, it was something historic. So, a few of us did. We got to be a part of all of that energy and momentum. It was really cool to be with tons of locals and cheering with them for his resignation. It was probably one of the best, if not, most memorable things.”

People stand outside 10 Downing Street the day Boris Johnson resigned. Photo courtesy of Nicole Rooney.

With more countries easing traveling restrictions due to COVID-19 and college campuses returning back to in-person learning, students are looking to study abroad more than ever as things start to get back to some sort of normalcy.

At their recent open fair, the UP study abroad office had 180 students in attendance which included information tables hosted by student ambassadors from various study abroad programs. This — coupled with the expectancy of a higher applicant pool — has the study abroad office buzzing with excitement about the future for the program as a whole. 

But what exactly is making students want to study abroad?

While most students chose to study abroad to travel to new places and to seek new experiences, Director for the UP Study Abroad Office, Maraina Montgomery sees it as a social justice cause. 

“There are surface level reasons why students should study abroad,” Montgomery said. “You can say [study abroad gives]  access to graduate programs and things like jobs — these things all relate to capitalism. For me, the reason I do this work is more rooted in how we see ourselves and how we show up in the lives of others. I think that increases in value when students have exposure to the outside world.”

Montgomery, who lived and worked abroad before coming to UP, acknowledges that study abroad highlights the importance of accessibility — specifically for BIPOC students. One of her main goals for the  program at UP is to reach those communities on campus. 

“Oftentimes, it's that student demographic that feels a little bit of guilt,” Montgomery said. “They don't share it as loudly and as proudly as folks who are just used to being able to travel because they've done so with their family and it's just a part of their cultural norm. I really want to empower others to say, ‘You did this and you may not have thought you would ever do this.’”

Gillian Ibarra, a junior who studied abroad last spring in Spain, reflects this same feeling of guilt. As a first-gen Latina student, she found it difficult to grapple with her desire of going abroad while also thinking about the needs of her family. 

“I feel like this mindset extends to a lot of people, especially with Latinos,” Ibarra said. “It's a big thing of [thinking things] like ‘How am I going to support this? I don't have enough money. I don't have a job right now.’ [or] ‘I'm literally in school to bring my family forward.’ It kind of seemed selfish.”

The emphasis for Montgomery is for students to understand that study abroad impacts the collective and not just the individual. The intent is that by having space in their community to share about their experiences abroad, students like Gillian, can feel proud about their decision to  study abroad.

One way the study abroad office is implementing this model of leadership is through their student ambassador program. Here, students who come back from their time abroad have an opportunity to share their knowledge and experience to prospective study abroad students.

“Being a Black woman in America and knowing from my own experience abroad, it's changed my access to the systems that lead to upward mobility and fair employment and access to people with information,” Montgomery said. “Even access to just ways of being and feeling free.”

Montgomery acknowledges that studying abroad is a privilege still, she thinks it is an important part in keeping the momentum of change going for students. By expanding their understanding of themselves and the world, students will be able to better implement changes in their own community.

“Without taking that first step, it's harder to then take other steps in your life that lead to self actualization and satisfaction,” Montgomery said. 

Rooney — a student ambassador for the study abroad office — felt that her time abroad expanded her own understanding of what social justice meant for her.

“It was interesting because you see a lot of parallels today here in the US when it comes to racism,” Rooney said. “Having a social justice focus myself, I really took a lot of things away in terms of how the UK is dealing with its past and how they're confronting social justice issues.

It has given me some ideas of different ways that we can go about solving things [here].”

By embracing, celebrating, and seeking out Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) at UP, Montgomery hopes it will help better UP’s storytelling abilities. By sharing the stories of students and their lived experiences, she thinks this will create a great impact on campus by enabling students to better understand one another.

If students are interested in this program, applications for Summer 2023, Fall 2023 or Spring 2024 are due Nov. 18.  

“I think we're in a place where we can go beyond what we normally think studying abroad is,” Montgomery said. “We can really start to look at how study abroad is a social justice tool that is intended to empower students of color, first-gen students and the students who don't see themselves able to do so. This office is working with great intentionality under great leadership. I'm personally really excited to see what the ripple effect will look like and the outcome of all of this will be.”

Kimberly Cortez is the Community Engagement Editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at