Navigating Identity & Diversity Abroad

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What Students Should Know Before You Go

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 you and other 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.

All in all, 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. So, 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.

What Is Intersectionality Abroad?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the concept of intersectionality 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.

Why is intersectionality relevant to your study abroad experience?

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, even 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 US or abroad. Ultimately, when you consciously navigate your study abroad experience with identity and inclusiveness in mind, you’ll likely expand your intercultural competency, a 21st Century 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.

Identity Dynamics in Your Host Country

For those of us who identify as American while living in America, we know that when it comes to identifying ourselves, we often consider our ethnicity, our gender, our sexuality, our religious affiliation, etc. Chances are most of us rarely think about our nationality while we’re in the U.S. However, when preparing to study abroad, it’s important to note that, often, those we meet while abroad will view us through the lens of our nationality first.  Other aspects of our identities, though, may factor into how we are perceived or treated while abroad, as well.

So, before leaving the U.S., it’s important to take into account how identity dynamics may, in part, shape your study abroad experience in your host country.  We highly encourage you and other students to learn as much as you can about how your personal identity(ies) are perceived in your host country. Social and intercultural dynamics in your host country may be shaped by global or local media images, host country experiences with immigration, the after effects of war or relations with other countries, and/or religious norms. The more you know about these factors, the better idea you’ll have of how you and other U.S. student peers may be perceived in your host country. For instance, a Muslim student in Morocco may have a different experience in the host culture, and may have different resources available to them than perhaps a Muslim student studying in Italy or in Japan.

No matter who you are or how you identify, please know that understanding the identity dynamics in your host country ahead of departing merely provides you with valuable contextual information. Knowing more before you go is useful since there’s no way to be certain as to how your identity will factor into your experience abroad positively, negatively or impartially. In a nutshell, we believe knowledge is power and can give you tools to navigate whatever experiences you’ll have.

For some students who may share some physical characteristics with locals in their host country, it’s important to know that locals may not always assume you’re from the U.S. On occasion, some students report instances when local residents perceive or behave toward them differently than toward other members of their cohort. Members of the local community may expect you to understand the language or certain cultural behaviors or nuances, when their expectations of other students may be more lenient.

It’s also important for all students to familiarize themselves with the sociopolitical climate of their host countries before arriving, because it may affect not only how you are perceived or treated, but the events and activities that you may choose to attend or participate in once you are on-site, possibly even on your host campus! Students should also note local attitudes regarding immigration in your host country, especially if you share some physical traits with the immigrant community.

Things to Think About Before You Study Abroad

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/play out during your time abroad?
  • How will local legislation affect how you might express your identity in your host country? (i.e., any laws affecting the LGTBQ+ 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? Might those issues regarding how you or other students on your program identify? How?

Things to Think About Before You Head Home

Before you return to the United States, 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 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 too?
  • What is the current sociopolitical climate of your home country?
    This is a tumultuous time in U.S. history, and while you have been a bit removed from much of it 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 variety of 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 (email, social media, skype, 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 Simmons, 2016 IES Abroad Blogger of the Year
Additional Resources
Our Diversity Team
Gretchen Cook-Anderson
Director, Diversity Recruiting & Advising
headshot of Hernando Sevilla-Garcia
Hernando Sevilla-Garcia
Diversity Relations Manager
headshot of Kandice Rose
Kandice Rose
Diversity Relations Manager