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Diversity & Identity Abroad

Students on SIT/IHP program in Brazil

Photo credit: Keyanna Ortiz Cedeño '20 (SIT/IHP, Brazil, spring 2019)

Race and Ethnicity | LGBTQ+ | Heritage Students | Religion | FLI | Disability and Accessibility

You won't be surprised to hear that studying abroad often teaches you a lot about the host culture(s). 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. 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, but doing your research is a tremendous help in dealing with these 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. 

Race and Ethnicity

If you're a student from a racial or ethnic minority planning to study abroad, you may find that there are things to consider and prepare for specifically regarding your racial or ethnic identity. American pop culture has exported certain images of Americans. 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. 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.   

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. That state is often referred to as "racial fatigue". This can be very tiring, but there are ways to cope with it. 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. There are also valuable online resources and communities - see the list of resources further down this page. 

This article by The Glimpse Foundation addresses common considerations for and concerns of American students of color studying abroad, as well as some practical advice and short personal narratives by students of color.

Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore

More online resources at the bottom of this page. 

LGBTQ+

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

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? 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. 

LGBTQ+ digital resources at Swarthmore

More online resources at the bottom of this page. 

Heritage Students

If you study abroad in a country where you blend in due to your physical appearance, a country where you share a common heritage with the majority, you may feel a special connection. However, while you blend in physically, you will more than likely experience cultural differences that can be challenging to navigate. Before traveling abroad you may have expected to feel a deep connection with the local culture, but instead you feel like an outsider, or you are 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. Research has shown that for most students, however, 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. 

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 to you to suddenly be part of a majority abroad, when you might be used to being part of the minority at home. There could be other heritage students on your program. Their experience could be very different from yours. 

Swarthmore student Maria Valadez Ingersoll '20 put together a guide for heritage students [pdf]. She also authored this insightful, personal account [pdf] about what it meant to study abroad in Mexico as a heritage student. 

Online resources at the bottom of this page. 

Religion

Religion plays an important part in cultures around the world. If you plan to practice your religion abroad, ask your program or the study abroad office abroad where you can do so safely. 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. 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? 

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. 

Online resources at the bottom of this page. 

FLI

As a first-gen/low-income student, studying abroad may not have been on your radar screen when you applied for College. However, we hope you will consider the many benefits of studying abroad, and think about whether this could be a good option for you! 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 OCS is here for you every step of the way! 

If you're concerned about financing an off-campus study program, please check out Money Matters for many scholarship opportunities, as well as specific information about costs. Your financial aid applies normally for the semester/year abroad, and OCS 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, but there are many programs with built-in travel. Your OCS advisor can assist in finding those programs if travel outside the host country is important to you.

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 OCS such as  Information for Parents and Guardians; or Health & Safety

Swat FLI

More online resources at the bottom of this page. 

Disability and Accessibility

We encourage you to be as open as possible with your OCS advisor about your needs or concerns so we can best assist you. 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. You should research and follow their particular processes. OCS works closely with the Swarthmore Student Disability Services and it is best to plan in advance and discuss your plan to study abroad early on, so they have time to  compile materials and send them to the proposed program if necessary. In preparation for your time abroad, 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. This can also be useful for an Anglophone country!

Online resources below: