Fostering brotherhood abroad

Study abroad can be life-changing, but it can also seem largely inaccessible to young men of color. The UW Brotherhood Initiative is working to open the door.

The benefits of study abroad are well documented, from increased confidence to an expanded worldview — and college students who study abroad are more likely to do better in school and graduate on time.

But that experience is often unattainable for a particular group of students: men of color. Of the more than 300,000 U.S. undergraduates who study abroad each year, an overwhelming majority are white women.

For students at the University of Washington, the Brotherhood Initiative (BI) wants to help level the field.

Tory Brundage

Tory Brundage, member of the Brotherhood Initiative leadership team

Breaking down barriers

Studies show that men of color graduate at lower rates than their female and white male peers. To help address this disparity, Joe Lott, associate professor at the College of Education, established the BI in 2016 as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge — and in line with the UW’s Race and Equity Initiative, launched by President Ana Mari Cauce.

“The main barrier for many of these students of color is a sense of belonging at the institution, because they rarely see other students, faculty and staff who look like them,” says Lott. “We wanted to create a space where they feel welcome and at home.”

That sense of belonging has been especially lacking in study abroad programs.

“Students don’t see themselves in study abroad materials, and they think, ‘Well, that’s not for me,’” says Tory Brundage, a graduate student at the College of Education and member of the BI leadership team.

Another major hurdle is the cost, he says. Many BI students come from lower-income backgrounds, so time away from a job or the burden of additional loan debt to cover trip expenses puts study abroad out of reach.

In late 2016, Lott and Brundage began exploring how to make study abroad possible for BI students. And last summer, thanks to financial support from UW Study Abroad, four BI students headed overseas.

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Marquis Wright and his classmates head off to see the sights in London.

Marquis’ journey

BI member Marquis Wright never thought he’d be able to study abroad.

A junior majoring in communication and creative writing, Wright grew up south of Seattle in Federal Way. During his freshman year, he was typically the only person of color in the room, and he often felt as if he didn’t belong. But thanks to the BI, Wright found the support he needed.

“The Brotherhood Initiative made my being a man of color on campus — and in academia in general — more manageable,” he says. “It really opened up the doors for everything I’ve done at the UW. I know that no matter what I do, I have a network of peers and mentors behind me.”

Still, studying abroad never seemed feasible, Wright says, between the high cost and the demands of his majors. “Then, through the Brotherhood Initiative,” he says, “I heard about the Dark Empire program in London.”

Led by Clarence Spigner from the School of Public Health, Dark Empire is an exploration seminar on race, health and society in the U.K. Thanks to the donor-supported Global Opportunities Fund, Wright and two other BI members received scholarships to take part in the program.

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“I was surprised at how little I was looked at like a stranger,” says Wright of his time in London.

While Wright loved experiencing U.K. culture, some of his most valuable lessons came from reflecting on life back home as a black man in a predominantly white city.

“In Seattle, it’s easy to feel like an outsider,” says Wright. But in diverse London, “I would walk down the street and see huge populations of people of color. I was surprised at how little I was looked at like a stranger.”

That comfort was something Wright had been missing in the U.S. “I got to see what life is like outside of what I’ve always known, outside of the racism and microaggressions in my interactions with people in Washington,” he says.

“Now I can see more of my place as an African American male in American society,” Wright says. “The experience helped me be more outspoken about the things that systemically affect me and others who aren’t part of the dominant majority.”

Marquis Wright (front row, center) and Tory Brundage (back row, left) with the Dark Empire group in London

Marquis Wright (front row, center) and Tory Brundage (back row, left) with the Dark Empire group in London

New directions for the Brotherhood Initiative

The University of Washington Rome Center, located in Campo de’ Fiori

The University of Washington Rome Center (at the back of the piazza), located in Campo de’ Fiori

Starting this August, the BI leadership team hopes to foster more experiences like Wright’s through an annual exploration seminar at the UW Rome Center.

“Education Rome: Masculinity, Race & Educational Pipelines” will focus on concepts of masculinity throughout Rome’s history. Lott hopes that participants “will gain a thirst for understanding more about Italian culture, their own culture and their place in local and global contexts.” The BI aims to offer scholarships for the program so it’s accessible to all students.

“My trip really rounded out my time at the UW,” Wright says. “Now I feel like I can bring my experiences as a person of color and a black person and pursue a life that I want for myself — and that I wish more people could have.”

Student perspectives

Hear from three Brotherhood Initiative members about their experiences abroad.

Marquis Wright studied
public health in London

Audio transcript (PDF)

Vipech Bun studied
engineering in Japan

Audio transcript (PDF)

Agustin Castro studied
engineering in Rome

Audio transcript (PDF)

Help make study abroad possible for all students

The Global Opportunities Fund helps students like Marquis Wright turn the dream of studying abroad into a reality. By supporting the fund, you can create opportunities for UW students to become more informed global citizens.

Global Opportunities Fund