Students from diverse cultural, racial, ethnic, national or economic backgrounds; students with disabilities; LGBTQ+ students; first-generation students; and others face unique challenges when participating in international programs. MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), based in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has launched an initiative to address such issues and better understand those perspectives.
The mission is simple: to prepare and support all students while abroad. Through student blogs, guided peer-to-peer conversation sessions and tailored resources, MISTI aims to empower students with new methods for engaging with their identities during the course of their international experiences.
“I have always ‘traveled’ through the course of my life. I have, in my 19 years of life, lived in 19 different buildings, four different states, and two different countries. Being a first-generation, low-income student did impact my confidence in my abilities to do well traveling abroad. …Thankfully, there were MISTI resources available that helped me,” says sophomore Enriko Kurtz Granadoz Chavez, who participated in an internship in Santiago, Chile, at the University of Santiago de Chile through MIT-Chile.
Co-sponsored by the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO), MISTI received grant support to host speakers from Diversity Abroad for both staff and students in 2017, and this year received additional funding to foster student leadership. MISTI is focusing on professional development, campus collaboration, and student communication in order to better prepare students before departure to their host countries and to provide thoughtful support while students are abroad.
To develop the new programming, Mala Ghosh, MIT-India managing director and MISTI diversity lead, talked with campus partners, researched current best practices, and sought out student feedback. “We are proud of the diversity represented in MISTI participation,” says Ghosh. “However, we must go beyond numbers and ensure that we are supporting all students to thrive abroad.”
Creating a conversation
MISTI offers a series of dialogue-based sessions, led by students and guided by MISTI staff, partners, and speakers. These gatherings are focused on particular aspects of identity and are open to all MIT students, with the goal of preparing students for traveling and living abroad. Four sessions were held during the past year: “Embracing Your Diversity Abroad”, “Being Out in the World: Being LGBTQ+ Abroad,” “Going Abroad as a Student of Color,” and “Religion & Spirituality Abroad.”
Eduardo Rivera, MIT-Chile program manager, captures the goals for both students and staff, “Every international academic experience is unique. The singularity of those experiences is not only shaped by the particular context of the destination, but more importantly by the unique lens through which the student will see and interact with the new context. Offering our students an opportunity to reflect on their identities and their international experiences is a fundamental step to supporting their personal and academic growth before, during, and after an experience abroad.”
Sharing student perspectives
MISTI also highlights student-to-student learning through MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors, where students write blogs about their MISTI experiences. These blogs start conversations on the ambassador’s identity and how it shaped their global experiences. This summer, 10 students wrote about religion, race, heritage, prejudice, privilege, LGBTQ+ identity, and economic status, among other topics.
“I joined the MISTI IdentityX Ambassador Program because it was a way to capture my thoughts while abroad. I picked South Africa because I had questions about my own identity that I sought to answer and this was a perfect medium,” says IdentityX Ambassador and sophomore Peter Williams, who completed a MISTI internship in South Africa to complement his MIT mechanical engineering studies.
“Participating in IdentityX has provided me the opportunity to frame, process, and write about my experience abroad in the context of identity,” says Carrie Watkins, who is pursuing her master’s in city planning and completed her internship in The Netherlands. “It has given me an excuse to enter into real conversations with new friends and colleagues.”
MISTI aims for these conversations to inspire students who don’t feel like international opportunities are for them, or are nervous about being successful in an internship abroad. “I think having honest accounts are valuable for individuals who are considering MISTI,” says Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf, a senior in chemical-biological engineering who wrote her IdentityX blogs during her internship in India. “It isn't necessarily purely for advice on 'how to survive' or reassurance of certain worries, but it is also a unique perspective on how to make the most out of the experience and grow.”
For master's student Trang Luu ’18, who completed MISTI internships in South Africa and Cameroon through MIT-Africa, the international experience forced her to expand and question aspects of her identity. “When I got my acceptance letter to MIT, I felt like I had broken through a glass ceiling,” says Luu. “I decided that the life I was going to live would be the life that I chose — and I chose to be an engineer. Never once did I anticipated that being an engineer could be have a downside; however, during my time in Cameroon, I began to realize that I needed to question my own perspectives and ensure broader social impact not only a technical or physical solution.”
Future MISTI events will continue to highlight different perspectives, the intersection of varying identities, and focus on providing country-specific resources to students. IdentityX Ambassadors will play an important part in that goal as peer mentors and program representatives.
“We believe one of the most effective ways for students to learn is by engaging with one another,” says Ghosh. “We are preparing MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors to help lead pre-departure sessions for students going overseas next year. It is vital for students to hear from other students not only about international academic and career opportunities, but also how their various identities played a role in their time abroad. We have found that students tend to open up more in smaller sessions focused on gender and safety abroad, being LGBTQ+ abroad, concerns around immigration and travel, student wellness while abroad, and preparing ahead for managing wellness or accessibility abroad.”
“The blogs and other identity programming can only make MISTI more approachable as a community,” says IdentityX Ambassador Johnson Huynh, who completed his internship in Mexico and is studying mechanical engineering. “If we could continue this trend of encouraging students to think about their identities, and highlight MISTI student personalities, I believe that it can only draw more participants towards the program and to international programs in general.”
The blogs not only met a student need, but also fulfilled a MISTI goal. “The MISTI blogs are a window to discover our students beyond their course or simple demographic data. The blogs are an exercise of reflection, but moreover, they are an expression of life changing experiences narrated in first person, an open book to the entire MIT community,” says Rivera.