In the fall of 2013, Nicole Phillip decided to take a break from studying at New York University’s Florence site to take a tour of Cinque Terre—a picturesque coastal region in northern Italy. The tour group, made up of mostly college students, spent a couple of hours at the beach and Phillip spent most of that time enjoying the view from underneath an umbrella.
As the group prepared to leave, a middle-aged, olive-skinned man wandered over and began flirting with them. They ignored him, but he continued as they packed up. The man grew annoyed and began telling the white women in the group to pick up their trash—referring to Phillip and another female student, both of whom are black—in accented English.
When the group started to walk away, the man threw his beer at Phillip and the other black woman, who began to yell at the man in response to his physical and verbal assault. The man then grabbed her and violently shook her as Phillip looked on in shock. A crowd of bystanders had gathered around but no one intervened—not even the white women in Phillip’s tour group.
“No one did anything,” Phillip said, adding that everyone present had “all the privilege in the world, and yet remain[ed] silent.”
Phillip is now 26 and a journalist for the New York Times. She wrote an article about this and other experiences of racial discrimination while studying abroad. In an interview, she could not emphasize enough the lack of general allyship, from not just bystanders at the beach but the NYU Florence campus.
Upon arriving in Florence, Phillip attended a study abroad orientation during which faculty warned students about how Italians could be bold and politically incorrect, but did not mention possible incidents of racism.
“I felt like they didn’t do enough at the orientation,” said Phillip, who described multiple incidents of overt racism and discrimination she experienced abroad. “Summing it up as political tensions definitely did not cover it.”
But Phillip isn’t alone. For years, students studying abroad at NYU sites have been vocal about the multiple forms of discrimination, including homophobia and racism, they faced while at one of the university’s international programs.
In response, NYU’s Office of Global Programs attempts to prepare students by discussing how students’ identities might be challenged while studying abroad through its mandatory orientations for those accepted to study away sites. But the primary intention of these orientations is logistics, not preparing students for possible personal attacks on their identity.
“You are coming from a very diverse city and going to places that have drastically different cultural and social standards,” Colby Hepner, an NYU Study Abroad Advisor, said during a recent orientation for students studying abroad at NYU Shanghai in the fall of 2019. “This transition will challenge your sense of identity subtly or confrontationally.”
After multiple attempts to meet for an interview about what NYU does to prepare students, Alejandro Martí, NYU’s Office of Global Programs Assistant Director who specifically addresses issues of identity abroad, began to not answer emails.
These conversations are intended to help prepare students for possible encounters and issues abroad, but it doesn’t stop them from happening. Students continue to face these issues as NYU continues to expand its study abroad program. This summer, the university is offering its first study abroad option in Brazil, a three-week program in the northeast coastal city of Recife. The program’s launch comes at a time of increased racial tension and discrimination in the country, following the recent rise of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected into office last October despite multiple controversial racist and homophobic remarks.
Despite experts being concerned about increasing homophobic and racially discriminant violence and tension in Brazil, NYU faculty leading the Brazil program said that steps have been taken to minimize the possibility of students facing such discrimination.
Fear of Targeted Violence
During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro made blatant homophobic, racist and sexist remarks. He publicly preaches about waging war on gang violence in the barrios and easing gun laws, and has also repeatedly dehumanized Brazil’s indigenous population by likening them to animals.
There already have been left-wing and right-wing acts of violence due to the tension he has cultivated. Bolsonaro was stabbed in September and continued his campaign while hospitalized. Right-wing acts of violence have had more of a polarizing effect on the country. In March 2018, Marielle Franco, an actress and activist who identified with the LGBQT+ community, was assassinated. Two police officers were charged with the execution-style murder, and Bolsonaro was directly linked to one of the officers.
Last fall, Bolsonaro was able to sweep into power after scandals came out regarding President Dilma Rousseff. He promoted a platform of change and promised safety by militantly dealing with violence in impoverished areas. There is a concern that extreme individuals will be empowered by election results.
“There is not only a fear of increased discrimination from the state, but also of a fostered sense of machismo which could spark increases in brazen targeted violence,” Travis Waldron, a HuffPost journalist who has extensively reported on Bolsonaro and the political climate in Brazil, said.
Dr. Michele Nascimento Kettner, the Brazil program’s director, has been pondering these fears as she prepares to conduct a mandatory pre-departure orientation for students accepted into the program. She explained navigating unfamiliar social and cultural contexts is an important aspect of studying abroad. She feels the same way about the heightened likelihood that students will face discrimination in Brazil.
“We can’t live in isolation, and such confrontations really make us reflect on concepts of societies abroad and society here,” Kettner, a Recife native, added.
There is still a concern that students will likely be confronted by more racist, sexist and homophobic slander due to these emboldened, extremist attitudes. But Kettner said all of this was considered in the earliest stages of planning. She said the Northeast region of the country—where Recife is located—was specifically chosen because it has traditionally been progressive and revolutionary. It was actually the only region where Bolsonaro lost.
“Recife is not just my home, many call it the Lion of the North due to how its inhabitants fought back or stubbornly opposed governing powers for progressive ideals since the colonial era.”
The culturally historic city was also chosen for its local artists, day-trip worthy surroundings and its ability to expand the university’s focus on Portuguese studies.
The upcoming summer program offers one class on Brazilian culture and society taught in English and the opportunity for students to improve their Portuguese by being immersed with native speakers. That aspect especially appealed to Rebecca Kaela Kanter, a visiting freshman from George Washington University who is going on the trip. Kanter is excited to go on the trip because she feels GWU lacks a focus on Portuguese language and the cultural aspects which will impact her as an international relations major.
“Increasing understanding of a culture and society provides new insights into international politics and relationships,” she said. “I hope to learn about the subtle components to Bolsonaro’s campaign which caused for the majority to vote for him.”
As an international relations major with a focus on Latin America, Kanter is well aware of Bolsonaro and the political climate. She does not consider herself susceptible to any discrimination as a white heterosexual individual and is interested in learning about the political climate from Brazilians.
Kayla Thompson is a freshman who plans to study abroad in London in spring 2020. As a student of color, Thompson has considered facing racism abroad before, and has heard personal stories from some of her friends.
“I would not let these fears stop me from studying abroad, but they will still impact me and my experience,” Thompson said after hearing Phillip’s stories. “I really just find the blatancy of some of these racist incidents appalling.”
Thompson appreciates NYU’s attempts to help students, but still thinks that nothing the university does could negate the impact these things would have on her. She also doesn’t think being concerned about possibly facing racism should prevent her from looking forward to studying at one of NYU’s 12 global sites.