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Identities Abroad


You expect to hear that studying abroad often teaches you a lot about the host culture(s). But what you may not have considered is that in many cases, being abroad teaches you at least as much about yourself and your own identity.

What is the most common “surprise” for students overseas when it comes to identity?

Individuals in your host country may identify you differently than you identify yourself, or differently than you have been identified before, regarding your race, ethnicity or other identity attributes.

Perhaps you identify as a minority in the U.S., but abroad you are regarded first and foremost as an American. Or you are presumed to be a local due to your physical appearance.

These and many other scenarios can prompt a lot of (self)reflection and questioning.

What can I do to prepare before I go?

Doing your research is a tremendous help in dealing with situations while abroad. We hope that this level of preparedness will make for a positive experience abroad. 

Before you go abroad, spend some time reflecting on how you identify yourself - is it by race? nationality? ethnicity? gender? ability? Your identity will likely evolve over your time abroad. 

Where can I find further reading/resources with a focus on intersectionality and rethinking identities abroad?


Race and Ethnicity

Dealing with assumptions about your race or ethnicity probably isn't a new experience for you, but you may find that those conversations take a very different shape abroad.

What experiences might a student from a racial or ethnic minority encounter abroad?

Black Americans often have to deal with the stereotypical notions of African Americans as rap and hip-hop artists, gangsters, and athletes (the three most commonly cited perceptions of African Americans in foreign countries). 

You may find that host cultures react very different to your identity, and students of color frequently cite political incorrectness as something they were unprepared for.

You may get very direct questions about your race, ignorant remarks, curious stares. People may even want to touch your skin or hair, or you may enjoy celebrity status, with locals wanting to take pictures with you.

While this bluntness may be challenging at first, students have shared how it often leads to surprisingly open dialogues about race and ethnicity.

Conversely, you may find yourself in a country where race is not discussed very much at all, which can bring about its own range of challenges.   

What is "racial fatigue"?

During your time abroad, there may be a point where you become tired of always having to serve the representative for your race, your ethnicity, and tired of the stares, the ignorant comments, and the need to constantly explain American expectations around race.

What can I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed?

Navigating racial/ethnic identities abroad can be frustrating, confusing, and tiring.  But there is support available.  Seek out help from your program staff, who are more often than not natives to your host culture and can help you navigate local norms and expectations, also when it comes to race.

Connect with student groups at Swarthmore and abroad, and try to reach out to peers on your program. Reach out to campus resources such as the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore.

Where can I find further reading/resources on race and ethnicity abroad?



Living in a new country requires learning about all aspects of the new society. Depending on your abroad destination(s), you will find a wide range of attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity. 

What is Illegal and will I be treated differently as a foreigner?

It is important to research and understand the customs and attitudes, as well as the laws of your host country so that you know how to feel comfortable and be safe.

The laws of the host county may either be more supportive of their LGBTQ+ citizens than in the U.S., or less so, and often the same attitudes extend to visitors.

In several countries consensual same-sex sexual activity has been criminalized, and penalties could be severe. This map visualizes sexual orientation laws.

How do I navigate being “out” or “closeted” abroad?

If you are “out” at home, reflect on what it means to leave behind a support system of friends and family.

Asserting your LGBTQ+ identity abroad has been described by some as a second "coming out."  Are you ready to go through that experience in a different cultural context?

How will you re-establish your identity overseas? Similarly, think about how open you want to be about your sexual / gender identity while studying abroad.

If you plan to study in a country that does not support LGBTQ+ individuals, are you willing and able to suppress that part of your identity? To what extent will this affect your study abroad experience?

What in-country resources are available before/during my program?

Speaking with local program staff about local norms and attitudes is a great way to feel supported, along with seeking a community of locals with similar identities. 

Where can I find further reading/resources for LGBTQ+ students abroad?


Heritage Students

If studying abroad in a country where you share a common heritage with the majority, you may feel a special connection.  But even if you blend in physically, more than likely you will experience unique challenges to navigate.

What are some benefits to being a heritage student abroad?

Research has shown that for most students, studying abroad in a country where they share a racial or ethnic identity with the majority was a very positive experience. The shared connection and different national identities often lead to stimulating conversations and rich learning opportunities. 

What are some challenges to being a heritage student abroad?

Before arriving, you may have expected to feel a deep connection with the local culture, but instead you might feel like an outsider, be regarded as one, or both.

Due to your physical appearance or native-sounding name, your hosts may hold you to a different standard than other students on your program. You may be criticized by locals for not speaking the local language fluently enough or for not picking up on all the socio-cultural clues. 

People in your host country may not always understand your experience as a minority in the U.S.

Some heritage students have described how they are sometimes made to feel like they are "not American enough" when in the U.S., and not "local" enough when abroad.

What can I do to prepare?

As a heritage seeker, one of the best things you can do is to enter the country with an open mind, and prepare for your experience.

Reflect on how you might react if you find something to be offensive. Think about what it means to you to suddenly be part of a majority abroad, when you might be used to being part of the minority at home.

Is there one "real" or ideal experience for heritage students?

Your journey is your journey. Even on the same program, there can be other heritage students whose experience(s) could be very different from yours. 

Where can I find further reading/resources ​​​​​ for heritage students abroad?



Religion plays an important part in cultures around the world, and may play an unexpected role in your experiences abroad.

What are some hidden benefits of faith-based community-building?

For many students, connecting with their faith community abroad has been a great way of establishing meaningful relationships abroad. It can also help to provide support when most of your support system is likely back in the U.S. or your home country. 

How can I continue my religious practices safely?

Before you go, consider your host country's religious tolerance. Is it safe for you to wear religious symbols and/or clothing openly? Will you be part of a majority or minority religion, and might that be different from what you are used to in the U.S. or in your home country? How accepting is your host culture of agnosticism and atheism? 

If you plan to practice your religion abroad, ask your program or the study abroad office abroad where you can do so safely.

Why is it important to learn about religion(s) in your host country?

Whether or not you consider yourself a religious person, it is good practice to research the dominant religion in your host country, especially if you are largely unfamiliar with its beliefs and practices.

You should also find out if there are laws regarding religions or religious practice, and whether or not government and religion are separated.

Even if you do not practice the dominant religion in your host country, you may find yourself participating in cultural events that are tied to religion, so you should know how to do so respectfully. 

Where can I find further reading/resources on ​​​​​religious practice abroad?



As a first-gen/low-income student, studying abroad may not have been on your radar screen when you applied for college, but we hope it is now!

Where do I start?

A good first step is to talk to your peers, your advisors, a SAM, or study abroad alumni at Swarthmore. There may be many aspects of study abroad that seem daunting, but GEO is with you every step of the way! 

How can I afford to study abroad?

Familiarize yourself with Study Abroad Finances for specific information about what costs are covered by Swarthmore.   For example, your financial aid applies normally for the semester/year abroad, and Global Engagement covers many extras, from a round-trip flight from Philly-host city, to local transportation, to visa fees and health insurance abroad.

Personal travel comes at an additional expense.   However, there are many programs with built-in travel.  Your GEO advisor can assist in finding those programs if travel outside the host country is important to you.

If you're still concerned about financing your experience, please check out our External Scholarships page for supplemental funding opportunities.

How do I explain my plans to my family?

If you are the first in your family or social circle to study abroad, there may be questions about the validity of your plans. They may think study abroad is a glorified vacation, or they may be concerned that you are putting yourself in harm's way. It could be helpful to point them some of the information provided by Global Engagement such as “Information for Parents and Guardians”, “Global Safety”, and “Health and Study Abroad.”  Swat FLI can also be a resource.

Where can I find further reading/resources​​​ on FLI students abroad?


Disability and Access

To ensure the best guidance, be as open as possible (early) with your GEO advisor about your needs or concerns.

Will I have the same protections and rights for my disability abroad?

It is important to know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a U.S. federal law and does not necessarily apply abroad.  That being said, many international universities and programs do have disability services and at times can provide accommodations. 

How can I ensure my needs can be met?

It is best to plan in advance and discuss your plan to study abroad early on, so there is time to compile documentation/materials to send to the proposed program if necessary.

Before/during your time abroad, you will need to be proactive regarding your program’s process and timelines. (For example: filing dates to request extra time for exams).

What support is available?

The Global Engagement Office can work with Swarthmore Student Disability Services and your overseas program to determine what is/isn’t possible based on local realities.  External organizations such as Mobility International can be an extremely useful resource when you are gathering information.

What if I have a service or support animal?

Service dogs have received specialized training to perform one or more utility function for a person with a permanent physical/mental disability or a blind or visually impaired person who is dependent on the animal.  In some countries, there may be a legal distinction between guide dogs and service animals. The latter has a broader scope of assignments related to impairments, which may include seizure disorders, mobility impairments, diabetes, etc.  Unlike service animals, be aware that most countries around the world do not recognize Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) in the same capacity that the United States does.  ESAs will not be permitted by most foreign programs.

If you are departing the United States with a service animal, you will be required you complete a "U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form."  For international flights, the forms can’t be completed electronically; you will need to print and carry this with you during your trip. 

Be aware that there may be destination-specific rules for traveling with a service dog. These may include mandatory quarantine periods, required vaccinations, or breed restrictions.  Most airlines have an accessibility desk that can be consulted to understand relevant local conditions. 

Below are some specific resources:
10 Steps to Bring Your Service Animal or Guide Dog to Another Country
Air Travel with your Guide Dog or Service Animal

Once I have my study abroad plans in place, what can I do to prepare?

Think about how you will answer questions about your disability in the language of your host country - look up key vocabulary words ahead of time.  (Note: this can also be useful for an Anglophone country.). Take this opportunity to think about what you do/don't wish to reveal to others about your disability while you are abroad.  It is entirely up to you how much you wish to share.  However, you will want to think about it in advance, and plan for how to have those discussions.

Research airlines, airports, train stations, and other travel methods to ensure that you will have the necessary accommodations for your disability when you travel in-country and to/from your destination.

Think through possible "what-if" or "worst case" scenarios.  Create plans for when a situation may go awry to ensure that you have the resources you need. (Example: if you use a power wheelchair, what would you do if it breaks down while you are abroad?)

Where can I find further reading/resources on disabilty and access?