The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Identity Abroad: Marcus Smith

September 27th, 2016
UI Diversity Ambassador Marcus Smith in Scotland

Dear Prospective Student,

I hope this letter finds you well and eager to study abroad! My name is Marcus Smith and I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the spring 2016 semester in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was without a doubt the best 5 months of my life, and gave me the chance to grow intellectually, emotionally, and culturally. That being said though, I did have several concerns before my departure, and a majority of them had to do with how my identity as a black male would be received over there.

I did not know much about Scotland’s racial climate before I crossed the pond. I chose Edinburgh for its reputation as one of the safest cities in the world, its English-speaking population, and its world-renowned university. It did not dawn on me until I was there that I was a black foreigner in a homogeneously white society. I thus unfairly assumed that I would face intense discrimination and be alienated by locals, but instead I received a warm welcome from some of the friendliest people in the world. Even though there were not many people that looked like me, I realized that I did not travel across the globe to meet more of the same. I met people from all over the world and of all different skin colors, and we had a lot more in common than I would have thought. Unlike in America, I did not feel as constrained by my black identity. If anything, I felt more liberated because I got to discover who I was past the stereotypical black male narrative that American society has constructed me to be. I learned that I wanted to rework my academic focus to have a heavier priority on social policy. I learned that the secret to holding a conversation with any local is being knowledgeable about their country’s soccer league. I learned that even with a language barrier, all people can communicate through dance and movement. I got to learn all of these things because I did not have to focus so much on being black, so I could focus on being myself.

 My semester abroad showed me that skin color does not always have to be so divisive. This does not imply that racism is only an issue for black Americans, but while abroad, away from deep-rooted racial tension, I learned that racial differences often play out in such a way that they create appreciation, not alienation.

I could go on and on about how being abroad has shaped me into a better, more confident individual, and this makes me question even more why there were so few fellow minorities, particularly black men, experiencing this journey with me. My program consisted of around 90 Americans, and I was one of two black students. Overall, there were 3,000 American students studying at The University of Edinburgh, and an unsettling majority of them were white. I wonder, what prevents black students from engaging in this opportunity to gain invaluable amounts of social capital? Whatever the reason is, whether it’s fear of spending too much money, fear of going to a place where no one looks “like us,” or just plain fear of the unknown, I encourage you to not let those fears prevent you from seeing the world. The bottom line is: there will never be a more accessible, practical, and convenient time to travel than in college. There are plenty of scholarships and funding available. There are plenty of program options that vary in length, country, and major-specific program to fit your needs. There is an entire office dedicated to helping you go abroad.

The world needs more traveling minority students, as our society is becoming more globalized and increased cultural competency is being demanded of our workforce. The time to travel is now, and I promise you that no matter how long and no matter what country, it will be an experience that you will never forget.

Happy Travels,

Marcus Smith