Social Identities Abroad
Different social identities may impact your study abroad experience in unique ways. Attitudes towards women and minorities can vary extensively among and within cultures. While students with various ethnic, social, gender, religious and other personal identities may have differing experiences, most enjoy positive study abroad experiences that help them engage with their identities in new and productive ways.
No place in the world is monocultural, and preparing to live and study outside the U.S. in advance will not only ease the transition but may impact your choice of study abroad location. We encourage students to embrace and educate themselves on the complexities of their own personal identity around the world.
Comprehensive resources on identity and inclusion abroad are listed below.
- Diversity Abroad: Culture and diversity destination guides
- Diversity Abroad: Diversity and inclusion abroad guide
- IES Abroad: Student diversity and access
- Institute for Study Abroad: A study abroad guide for students
- Northwestern University: Identity abroad
- Northwestern University: Country-specific identity information
- University of California Santa Cruz: Identities abroad and away
Although study abroad is accessible to everyone, it’s important to know that you may encounter differences in attitudes and laws regarding physical, mental and chronic illness depending on your destination. In some countries, it’s assumed that those with disabilities need and want help, and some locals might feel obligated to offer help. While studying in another country may be challenging, your experience will help you gain a new perspective on how other cultures treat people with disabilities.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act is not applicable in other countries, most hosts and facilitators are eager to coordinate accommodations abroad. As you plan, you should seek to understand your host country’s cultural approach to disabilities and accessibility, as well as the demands of your program. Accessibility measures that you’re used to at home may not be as prevalent abroad.
Preparation and communication are key to a positive study abroad experience. Students with disabilities who are interested in studying abroad should contact the Center for Global Education and Fellowships along with Disability Services so that they can organize accommodations and offer resources that best address individual needs.
Key Questions to Consider
- How will my disability affect which study abroad programs I consider? What barriers might I encounter and how will I overcome them?
- How are people with my disability viewed in my host country? Will the prevailing attitudes and perceptions in my host country impact my daily life? How will I prepare for a cultural shift?
- What laws and norms are in place to address my disability or accessibility needs in my host country?
- How accessible are places in my host country? What are the physical environments like?
- What are the physical, mental and academic demands of this program? Can I expect comparable accommodations abroad to those I receive at home? What accommodations are available through the program? Who will fund any special accommodations?
- What type of support will I need while abroad and how will it differ from what I am accustomed to at Salve Regina? Does my program have a support staff that can help me if an incident occurs?
- What medications are or are not available in my host country, and will my insurance cover them?
- Will my disability prevent me from participating in certain excursions/activities? If field trips are not accessible and are required for a course, will alternative access be available?
As a first-generation college student, your focus may be to simply navigate what it means to be successful in college. However, studying abroad does not take away from your ability to succeed in college – rather, it can enhance it.
Studies suggest that first-generation college students have a proven track record of forging new paths and are often uniquely positioned to succeed abroad. You can develop new perspectives on academic subjects and real-world issues, experience personal growth, achieve proficiency in a foreign language and enhance cross-cultural understanding.
You may be the first person in your family to pursue an international experience, and your family will likely have many questions. They might be especially concerned about how much it will cost to study abroad, and they may not understand why you would want to leave the country. It can be daunting to have friends and family misunderstanding study abroad as a vacation. It’s important to find people in your life that will support your decision to study abroad.
Key Questions to Consider
- What concerns or hesitations do I need to address with my family and support network? How will I involve my family in my decision to study abroad
- What kind of experience am I looking for? Do I want a distinct experience or to retain some cultural similarities?
- How important is the physical distance from friends and family, and how will I stay connected?
- Have I determined my personal, academic and professional goals associated with my experience abroad? How will my study abroad experience contribute to the achievement of these goals?
- How do I plan to finance my time abroad?
Gender roles and perceptions vary tremendously around the world. In some countries or regions, expressions of gender will be familiar to you, while in others they may be vastly different. As you prepare to travel abroad, it’s important to reflect on how you express your gender through clothing, language, customs and personal traditions, and also to research the region you are entering.
There is no right or wrong way to behave as a woman abroad. However, it’s important to recognize that in some cultures, women’s actions and personal expressions can send unfamiliar signals that may be misunderstood and may have unintended consequences. When making decisions about behavior, actions and relationships abroad, you are urged to put your safety first. You are also encouraged to research cultural cues and gender roles in order to make the best decisions for you. You may find that what is viewed as acceptable behavior in your host country is offensive to you or makes you uncomfortable. It is important to check societal expectations with your own personal values.
It’s just as important for male students to understand the prevailing gender roles in their program location, and to be sensitive to the challenges that women in the program may face. Male students are encouraged to be supportive by recognizing situations in which they can, by their own behavior and actions, meaningfully reduce women’s exposure to risk and harassment.
Key Questions to Consider
- What are specific gender norms in my host country? How do they compare or differ from the U.S.?
- How do my personal values compare with my host country’s attitudes about socially accepted gender roles? Are there aspects of my personal values that I am willing to compromise in order to make safe and culturally informed choices?
- How are relationships (both platonic and romantic) between men and women expressed in my host country? How do men and women commonly interact?
- How are issues such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment or sexual assault understood and treated in my host country? Are there any safety considerations I should be aware of?
- How do men and women publicly express gender (clothing, appearance, language)? Will I have to adjust my own understandings of gender and gender expression to be culturally appropriate and respectful?
- How do heterosexual, lesbian, gay and queer identified couples display affection in public in my host country? What are the laws and cultural norms surrounding relationships and dating?
- What gender stereotypes exist in my host country? How do men treat women?
- What boundaries will I have while abroad and how can I make them clear?
If you are an LGBTQ+ student or are still exploring your identity, it’s important to reflect on how your host country understands gender, gender identity and sexual orientation. While researching study abroad programs, remember that diverse sexual and gender identities have long existed across cultures, time and place. While LGBTQ+ identities are not new, how a culture navigates gender and sexuality varies widely across the globe. The social climate, laws and personal interactions of other cultures often differ from the United States. This includes what is culturally relevant and appropriate in language, dress, expression and visibility.
While many countries are very accepting of LGBTQ+ persons, others are less tolerant. Attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender nonconformity can vary significantly even within regions of the same country or according to different social contexts. This makes it essential to consider how identifying as LGBTQ+ can impact your experience abroad, including how it could positively or negatively affect your health, safety and well-being. Before you choose a program, consider the local context and how you will manage your LGBTQ+ identity in that setting.
Key Questions to Consider
- What are the social and cultural attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community in my host country? Are sexual orientations and gender identity openly discussed or taboo?
- How open do I want/need to be about my sexual orientation with friends, professors, host family and program staff? What may make the coming out process different in my host country compared to the U.S.?
- Are there any safety considerations I should be aware of? Can I be open about my sexual identity? If I have to hide my sexual orientation due to safety concerns, how will this impact my study abroad experience?
- What roles do trans people play in my host country?
- How LGBTQ-friendly is my host institution? Does my program offer LGBTQ+ friendly housing? Can my program make accommodations such as single rooms, private bathrooms and certain roommates?
- Are there LGBTQ-friendly establishments/organizations on or near my host campus? Can and will the program staff help me identify them?
- Will health and counseling services be available abroad? Will I need them abroad?
- How do lesbian, gay and queer identified couples display affection in public in my host country? What are the laws and cultural norms surrounding relationships and dating?
Race and ethnicity
It’s important to reflect on how your race or ethnicity may be viewed and understood abroad. You may be a racial minority at home but studying in a country where your race is the majority, or you may become a racial minority for the first time.
While you are abroad, people may make assumptions based on your physical appearance. They might ask questions about your culture and share their views about your ethnicity and race. In these situations, it’s best to assume positive intent. You may find that interpreting their racial and ethnic perspective in a new context can help you grow and feel ultimately more secure with your identity. Discussions about race and ethnicity can help you develop a realistic understanding of how your identity might play into the experience in different locations.
Study abroad can be an exciting way to explore your racial and ethnic background, and you may find yourself being perceived in ways you didn’t expect. If you’re visiting a country where you have ethnic or racial roots, you may have to consider the local norms and expectations in ways that students with different backgrounds may not. In countries with ethnic or racial conflicts, you may be surprised at how you’re categorized – you may be inadvertently identified with one group or another simply based on your appearance. On the other hand, perhaps you’ll be considered American first, and your ethnic or racial identity will be secondary.
There is incredible value in embracing the fullness of your racial and ethnic identity as an active part of your international experience, ultimately leading to personal growth, broadened perspectives and a greater understanding and appreciation of your identity as a global entity.
Key Questions to Consider
- Will I be perceived to be in the majority, or will I be perceived as a minority? How will these experiences differ from being in the U.S.?
- How is my racial/ethnic group perceived in my host country? What kind of stereotypes exist there? How will the climate towards my race and ethnicity affect the way I engage with my host culture?
- Are there any safety considerations to be aware of? Will I experience any form of discrimination? How can I prepare myself in case a racial or discriminatory incident occurs? Who will I contact if I experience racial or discriminatory incidents?
- How can I differentiate between curiosity and bad intentions?
- If I am living with a host family, have they housed minorities before?
- What racial and ethnic demographics exist in my host country? What historical, political and cultural events have impacted those groups?
- How open will I be about my cultural heritage with people in my host country? How might this impact my experience abroad?
- How important is it for me to find other multicultural friends while I am abroad? How will I connect with them?
- Are there multicultural activities at my host institution or nearby?
Religion and spirituality
All countries have their own rich history of religious and spiritual traditions, which may or may not have a place in government systems and societal norms. Religion may be absent from mainstream culture, or it may be a guiding principle for everyday interactions. Historical factors may result in a unique blend of religions and spiritual practices that differ from typical expression at home. When you study abroad, your core beliefs may be solidified, shaken or expanded. Above all, you should value this time to reflect on your own belief system as an entity that’s larger than your own experience.
Studying abroad can be a great opportunity to learn about different religions. When choosing a program, try to learn more about the majority religion and degree of religious tolerance in the host country. This can inform you when and where it would be comfortable and safe for you to discuss your religious or non-religious views.
It’s best to understand ahead of time in what ways you may practice your own religion abroad. You may find that spending time in a country where the majority religion is different from your own can lead to a better understanding of your religious beliefs and your own identity.
Key Questions to Consider
- What is the religious/spiritual makeup of my host country? What do I know about the religion(s) of my host country and the role religion plays in its society?
- Do my beliefs align with a majority or minority group?
- Are there any laws regarding religion? Is there a separation between religion and government?
- What is the attitude of people towards other religions, including my own? How tolerant is my host country of other religions, or atheists and agnostics?
- Is it safe for me to wear religious symbols?
- How are religious holidays observed and celebrated? Will I want to participate?
- How can I respect my host country's religion and participate in cultural events, even if I don't practice the religion?
- Are there faith-based resources available in my host country? Volunteer organizations? Places to worship? Student organizations?
- Am I open to living in a homestay with a diverse religious background from myself?
- Which principles of my faith or spirituality am I willing to explore and expand on? Which do I want to stand firm on?
Information on this page has been adapted from resources published by Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Simmons University, University of Michigan, University of Nebraska and West Virginia University.
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