Students from the Fearless Leadership Institute smile for a group picture in front of sand dunes

Students Travel with Division of Diversity to Study in Dubai, Abu Dhabi

  • May 9, 2022
  • Kayla Johnson

Trekking across the golden dunes of Dubai on camelback, admiring the dazzling, intricate motifs of Arabian architecture and breaking bread with new friends, Vanessa Lane felt like she had stepped into a whole new world. 

Since her freshman year at The University of Texas at Austin, Lane had dreamed of studying abroad. And even when her much-awaited trip to South Africa was canceled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic, she remained determined to experience a new culture firsthand. 

Vanessa Lane wears a blue outfit and smiles in front of a body of water

Over spring break, Lane finally got the chance to expand her worldview by traveling to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE). 

On this trip, a collaboration with New York University Abu Dhabi, UT Austin professors Leonard Moore, Ph.D., and Devin Walker, Ph.D., taught a cohort of 75 students about futurism and sustainability through immersion in the vibrant cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

Vanessa Lane poses in front of a mosque

Lane had traveled alone in the United States before, but flying across the world by herself was a unique adventure. After weathering a tidal wave of predeparture meetings, COVID tests and paperwork, she finally found herself in Dubai. 

“I feel like a switch flipped,” Lane says reminiscing on how she drew back the curtains of her hotel room the first night and gazed over the cityscape. “It’s one thing to think about going, but to actually be present in that space was eye-opening.” 

Promoting Diversity Abroad 

The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement seeks to cultivate an inclusive campus culture by providing educational resources for marginalized students, faculty and community members. DDCE’s Global Leadership and Social Impact program offers accessible, project-based study abroad opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience around the world. 

Three FLI girls pose for a picture together

These programs strive especially to serve members of DDCE’s various organizations and initiatives for student success under the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity. That includes, among others, the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, the Monarch Student Program for immigrant students and the Fearless Leadership Institute, an organization for Black and Latina women, for which Lane is a student ambassador. 

Among the 75 students on the trip to the UAE, 57 of them—three-quarters of the cohort—identified as Black. That fact is significant because students of color, particularly African American students, are historically underrepresented in study abroad programs. 

According to the 2021 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, about 70 percent of U.S. students who study abroad are white. On the other hand, 10 percent of the U.S. students studying abroad are Hispanic, 9 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 5.5 percent Black, and fewer than 5 percent multiracial. 

FLI Girls smile for a selfie

Lane says students of color often feel pressure to prove their worthiness in spaces where they are the minority. That is why she says it was so empowering to travel with a diverse group. She was able to counteract some of the limiting beliefs others held about her and, more importantly, the ones she held about herself.   

“It’s not just about trying to prove to them that we can do it because I don’t think we can (convince them),” Lane says. “It’s more about proving it to the person themselves, who have never seen people like them in that space, and giving them the confidence to bring back with them.” 

Lane is a third-year race, indigeneity and migration major with a minor in African and African Diaspora studies. Her classes explore different aspects of race, especially concerning indigenous identities and how they interact with education and politics. Studying in the UAE gave her the unique opportunity to compare how the concepts from her courses function in other cultures. 

Three girl stand together wearing Emirati abayas

One shocking cultural difference for her was that Emiratis don’t consider race the same way Americans do. Instead, people are categorized by their nationality. She also learned to adapt to local customs and standards for public conduct, like women veiling themselves to enter mosques and people standing closer to one another than they do in the States. 

Other highlights of the trip included attending a world expo showcasing art and culture from different countries, visiting Dubai’s presidential palace, and riding the elevator to the top floor of the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings in the world. 

Lane says she admires the deep reverence for and commitment to tradition that Emiratis hold. The cohort explored how intentionally prioritizing culture and sustainable design have helped Dubai and Abu Dhabi flourish and, in turn, how to use design thinking for personal development.  

“It’s built a lot of confidence in me to come back and build a sustainable life for myself,” Lane says.   

Finding Your Path to Study Abroad 

This summer, DDCE’s Global Leadership and Social Impact program will take two more groups of students abroad. One group will travel to Cape Town, South Africa, and the other to Puebla, Mexico. 

Lane encourages anyone with the slightest interest in studying abroad to reach out to professors, mentors and advisors with their questions or concerns. The university offers many institutional resources to help, as well.  

Vanessa Lane and her friends from FLI smile for a group picture

Texas Global, UT Austin’s international office, offers a range of study abroad resources to help students explore numerous options for taking their education beyond the Forty Acres. Begin by searching for a program by school, major, academic term or other criteria. Or, for more guidance, connect with education abroad advisors

Lane acknowledges that for many students, including herself, finances often present a huge barrier. But she says they should not be the determining factor for whether someone travels abroad or not. 

Texas Global’s Education Abroad office can help students explore funding resources for studying abroad, from scholarships and grants to financial aid and loans, to make international learning more affordable. There is even more specialized support for first-generation students and benefits for veterans. 

At a university with as many resources as UT Austin, Lane says, it’s important to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. And that often means stepping outside of your comfort zone. 

“Growth and comfort don’t mix,” Lane says. But she also reminds students they aren’t alone in pursuing their goals, adding, “There are people here, especially as part of the DDCE, who want to help you and encourage you to do it.”