In Hayesville, North Carolina, the sleepy mountain town where Katelyn Brown-Gomez grew up, there was a startling lack of diversity. “Two hours from everywhere” is how the townspeople described their locale, because of its two-hour proximity to Asheville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Atlanta. The isolated geography formed a community that Katelyn describes as “ninety-five percent white, local, Christian, and identifying as heteronormative.” Some of her close friends were part of the remaining 5% of the population, and she was shaken by how ostracizing an experience it was for them, which is why she became drawn to working with and for communities that are not highly represented.
Imagine the culture shock when she enrolled at UNC and moved to the socio-economically diverse town of Chapel Hill to pursue a BA in Psychology (’10). “It was one of the first times I was exposed to many diverse identities as it relates to race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and religious beliefs,” she said. Her perspectives were further broadened when she participated in Study Abroad in Barcelona, Spain, during her sophomore year. She was so influenced by the experience that after earning an MS in Mental Health counseling from UT-Knoxville, she returned to UNC in 2015 to become a Study Abroad Advisor for the very program that she attended in Barcelona all those years ago.
Katelyn has been lauded by colleagues as a “steady and fierce advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in global education in Study Abroad.” There, she’s chaired the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, where she has introduced sweeping changes to help ensure that a broad range of student identities are supported, from the application process to the international living and learning experience of Study Abroad. Her work has opened opportunities for all students, many of whom never imagined themselves traveling abroad, allowing them the unique visceral exposure to global education that will impact their lives forever.
What was the message you received from your family regarding higher education?
My parents have always been advocates for me and my educational pursuits. I received a fairly significant scholarship to run cross country at a private college near my hometown, but I was dead set on going to UNC. They supported my decision even though it was going to cost a lot more. We took out several parent and student loans for me to attend, many of which I’m still paying off today. This experience has really shaped the way I talk to students about what it means to commit to a student loan.
How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form? Can you recall any specific moments when you realized there was disparity?
I think my first exposure to issues of disparity started in undergrad while minoring in Sexuality Studies. It was through those courses that I learned so much about discrimination related to gender and sexual orientation and how the lack of support and attention to these identities really shaped the possible paths for individuals and communities. [I learned about] the history and issues of safety and security, discrimination in the workplace, and lack of mental health support available to LGBTQ+ individuals. When I became a mental health therapist, my understanding of disparity expanded wider to individuals with mental health disorders that also had varying socioeconomic stability, criminal histories preventing them from getting stable jobs, and weakened support networks. In the last year, I’ve taken a long hard look at my own privilege as a white middle-class woman and how generational and societal structures and expectations have impacted my opportunities for success. It influences how I think about the supports our students need because of their various backgrounds, identities and the institutional barriers that have elevated some while leaving others behind.
What led to your work in Study Abroad rather than a psychology-oriented career?
After graduate school, I worked in a community mental health practice with individuals and families ranging from age two to 70 who had various mental health-related issues and needs. Many of my clients were foster children who had lost parents to drugs and violence and were now part of the Department of Human Services system. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life and I felt for a moment that therapy offered these kids a stable space to be themselves when everything else in their world was so complicated. Unfortunately, the mental health system is a business and the requirements of quantity of clients vs. quality of care became unbalanced. I decided that I could not ethically serve that number of clients. I experienced professional and emotional burnout within a year and a half of practicing. I made the difficult choice to leave that field and pursue a career in academia, where I could still utilize my counseling skills and background. I’ve found it incredibly useful while helping students identify their academic goals, exploring the impacts of cultural immersion and establishing resources and tools for navigating international education.
Although international education is a female-dominated field, one of the biggest challenges I face is related to safety and travel as a woman. When I travel and when I prepare students to travel, we have to consider safety and awareness of cultural perspectives of gender. Recently, my colleagues and I had a discussion regarding how to communicate gender and travel safety to our students. There is a fine line between scaring people with the dangers of traveling abroad but also educating and bringing awareness and tools for staying safe. We found that it’s a balance of empowerment, knowledge and resources.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how did he/she/they guide you?
I’ve had people in my life that have inspired me to think more critically about society, social justice and my role in it. My best friend Jessie has always kept up with current political and social justice events and movements. She is one of the most socially conscious people I know. I’ve gained so much more awareness through our conversations, sharing of knowledge and encouragement to engage in social movements. My husband John is my sounding board. He is the person I dive deep into topics with because we can explore the ins and outs of it all. He gives me the space to be vulnerable with my ignorance, to find my humility, and to encourage me to take action. Because of these two special human beings, I feel empowered to take on new initiatives in my personal and professional life that relate to diversity, equity and inclusion because I feel more educated and can acknowledge the areas where I need to learn more and do more.
What was the campus climate like when you came to UNC for your undergraduate studies? How did it change when you returned as a staff member…and how did you navigate it?
I was relatively self-centered as an 18-year-old. My world revolved around my studies and my immediate social circle. I truly lacked a sense of awareness for the challenges that others at UNC might have been facing at the time. As an adult returning to campus, I see the areas of improvement for our students and the ways we can do better to support those who might fall through the cracks of a big university system. [As UNC staff,] I have more purpose to serve and better clarity for those on campus who are working with a similar mission, especially as it relates to DE&I.
In what way was your undergraduate study abroad experience in Barcelona enlightening?
From a developmental perspective, studying abroad really changed the way I viewed myself and my ability to navigate my own life. Even now, Barcelona is the largest city I have ever lived in. I managed to learn enough Spanish to do some independent travel while also being safe. Even at 19, I recognized my own vulnerability in traveling abroad as a woman. Technology at the time was still quite limited and it took a bit more awareness and advanced planning to ensure that the adventures I was embarking on were safe. Having that early college exposure to international education really laid the groundwork for the importance of cultural immersion. My intercultural exchange with my host family and the community I was living in helped develop in me a sense of empathy and understanding for difference and a recognition that there is value in cultural diversity and viewpoints.
You’ve applied much of this in your position as chair of Study Abroad’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group: creating student panels about race, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ identities abroad, discussions with Global Studies faculty and students about racial inequity within the major, virtual advising videos that are accessible 24/7, a new section in the Heels Abroad handbook on Identity Abroad, a process for emailing identity-based resources to new applicants and a new suite of study abroad advising resources for first-gen students. How did this come about?
Nationally and at UNC, study abroad participants are predominantly white, middle-to-upper socioeconomic level, and female (70%). The events of last year with the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey and many others really sparked a conversation in our office about our own complicit actions in supporting institutional racism. We began looking inward at the work we were doing and what we could control, evaluate and change. By providing identity-based resources, offering student identity representation in marketing and student panels, and educating faculty and staff on the impacts of implicit bias or disparities of study abroad opportunities, we hope that this will encourage more students to see themselves as part of UNC’s global guarantee for all Tar Heels to have a global experience.
You’ve also worked to remove letters of recommendation as a study abroad application agreement, eliminated a separate application for study abroad scholarships, changed the study abroad eligibility from GPA at UNC to cumulative GPA (from all institutions). How has this reflected change in the demographics of Study Abroad participants?
Due to COVID-19, we aren’t sure yet. But from my one-on-one advising appointments, many students have been relieved to learn that they did not have to get a letter of recommendation, [especially since] Zoom classes have made it more challenging than ever to initiate and maintain a deep relationship with faculty. Hopefully, it is a relief to faculty that they will not be required to complete those recommendation letters during such a stressful time in their professional careers.
What are the greatest barriers to providing study abroad experiences to all students? What demographic tends to suffer from these barriers the most…and how do you address this?
Cost. Students [tell us] this is the number one reason why they haven’t studied abroad or why they believe they can’t. This often disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and transfer students. For some, studying abroad not only means paying for the program, but it also means a loss of income. Going abroad means that the student can’t work. Although we have not resolved the issue of work abroad due to work visa requirements needed in other countries, we have identified ways to increase opportunities for funding students with high financial need. In previous years, students were missing the step to apply for scholarships and were unable to receive funding from our office but would have been absolutely eligible had they applied. We made administrative changes and are now reaching more students with high financial need because the study abroad scholarship application has been integrated into the study abroad program application, thanks to the significant help of our colleague Sharon Beers from the Office of Scholarship and Student Aid.
You’ve also organized numerous discussions and professional development sessions for staff to share, process, reflect and learn in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year. How have these discussions informed your work?
The DEI Book Club discussions that have developed over the last year have been a space for us to explore how identity impacts our work in the field of International Education. We discuss various aspects of identity and why it is relevant from a cultural immersion perspective and areas of identity that we might not have otherwise considered when serving students and developing programs. Sometimes our discussions include how we might be unintentionally limiting diverse student engagement in study abroad and how to overcome those barriers. [Now,] our staff is more aware and able to identify how DEI impacts all of our work. I hear them asking questions like, “How do we make our application process accessible? Do we have offerings in our portfolio that appeal to our diverse student population? How can we get more faculty of color involved in our programming?” It’s exciting to see this type of thought process occurring and that we are intentionally identifying more ways to be inclusive and supportive of our students and their diverse and intersectional identities.
What do you do during your off time? Any special interests?
I’ve become a quintessential millennial plant parent. Growing green things has brought me a lot of ease this past year. It felt like a project/space where I could put positive energy and practice patience. I often hold up a plant to show my husband John because it has a new green leaf or bud. In a year when things felt so out of control, restless, lonely and at times quite hopeless, it was such a relief to see something grow and live so delicately and fiercely.