Think of study abroad as a formative space where every term a new group of distinct identities intersect in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a different country and culture.
We’ve seen a positive trend of rising student diversity in U.S. study abroad for more than a decade. As more students of different backgrounds and identities choose to study abroad from U.S. schools, we invite students on our programs to be aware of how important it is for all of us—students, faculty and staff—to participate in creating an environment where all students can thrive while abroad.
For the purposes of true inclusivity, thinking about identity abroad and its complexities in the context of another culture is something we hope you’ll embrace in advance of boarding your flight for your IES Abroad journey. Understanding how your own identity may play into your host culture experience abroad can help smooth how you acclimate and enable you to engage more easily and authentically with other students’ and host country residents’ personalities, ideas, perspectives, forms of expression and backgrounds.
Coined by author and pioneer, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality is defined by the Oxford dictionary as, "The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage."
Consider all of the different aspects of your identity and imagine them as streets—simply put, intersectionality is the place where all of your identities meet. What are your identities? Take into account nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religious affiliation, etc.
Identity is a factor for every individual in your cohort. Whether you are part of a majority at home or belong to an underrepresented community, your study abroad experience is a chance to become part of an inclusive group made up of diverse individuals. A helpful way to begin thinking about this is by “exploring the world between the hyphen.” For example, identifying as Afro-Dominican or Irish-American suggests that two different worlds are colliding. This may present you with a unique perspective when it comes to issues of race, immigration, or religion and a unique opportunity to learn from others’ hyphenated lived experiences.
Likewise, if you are part of a majority, acknowledging positions of power and privilege is helpful when interacting with students and others who may find themselves in the minority, whether while in the U.S. or abroad. Ultimately, when you consciously navigate your study abroad experience with identity and inclusiveness in mind, you’ll likely expand your intercultural competency. This is a valuable skill that can benefit you significantly, both personally and professionally. In simpler terms, study abroad offers opportunities for students to hone competencies like this that empower you with greater savvy across different cultural contexts. Study abroad can indeed be an important point along your lifelong continuum toward intercultural competence – if you embrace this aspect of the experience as you do others.
The predeparture stage of study abroad is a critical time to begin familiarizing yourself with your host country and culture. In other words, even before arriving on-site, we encourage you to begin the process of acclimating yourself to a new environment. You may find it helpful to answer these questions before arriving in your host country:
What is intersectionality and how might different aspects of your identity intersect/show up during your time abroad?
How might local legislation impact how you express your identity in your host country? (i.e., any laws affecting the LGTBQIA+ community in countries like Morocco)
What is the perception of U.S. citizens in your host country?
What is the historical relationship between your host country and the United States?
How is race/ethnicity viewed differently in your host country than at home in the U.S.?
Are there any contemporary issues relating to immigration in your host country? If so, how are these viewed by the local population?
Before you return to the home campus, there are a few things we encourage you to think about:
How have you changed? Studying abroad is a life-changing experience that is full of personal growth. It’s not uncommon for students to find that their perception of themselves and their place in the world changed in various ways during their study abroad experience. Has that been the case for you?
What is the current sociopolitical climate of your home country? While you have been a bit removed from much of what may be going on in your home country while abroad, you are about to return to the fray. Before leaving your host country, we encourage you to briefly catch up on what’s happening in U.S. national and local news.
How will you keep in contact with the friends you made while abroad? Studying abroad can be a rare opportunity to develop meaningful relationships, sometimes for the first time, with people of other cultures, linguistic backgrounds, or religions. We know that it can be difficult to keep up with long distance friends once you get back into the swing of your "normal" life. Before you leave your host country, you should not only come up with a plan on how you’ll maintain contact (social media, email, etc.) but you should also consider how these new friendships can positively influence your desire to develop more friendships across difference as well, once you are back home in the U.S.
“I’m freer to be myself; I know who I am in a different language and a different culture because I created that person and held her close and, in the process, became proud of her. I don’t think I would’ve had that without leaving the comfort of my spaces here at home.”
Ashley S. • Brandeis University • Granada – Study in Granada
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