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Diversity & Study Abroad: Identity and Disclosure*
The Amherst College Career Center is committed to promoting diversity within international education. We are particularly focused on improving participation from students from groups typically underrepresented in education abroad. For inquiries regarding diversity issues please do not hesitate in contacting Dean Janna Behrens, Director of Education Abroad.
In the United States, we tend to use different characteristics of our personalities, backgrounds, and/or physical attributes to help us identify who we are as individuals. These social identity groups help us understand how we fit within the larger context of our culture and population. Many of us identify with several groups at once. It is important to reflect on the different ways you identify as an individual when preparing to immerse yourself in another culture. You may find that a ‘majority’ identification in the United States is a rarity in your host culture. For instance, if your race is a huge identifying factor for you at home, you might be surprised to learn that while abroad, your nationality could become much more important to those around you.
As with all individuals, there are social group memberships that are hidden, or not immediately obvious to someone else. To decide what is important to disclose to your host community, you may want to think about what parts of your identity might create barriers for you in experiencing that host culture. For instance, will your African host culture find your vegetarian lifestyle offensive? If so, could you forego it for the duration of your program? Likewise, students may want to wait and understand their host climates before disclosing political party beliefs and affiliations.
For more information on specific identity issues and study abroad, please visit the following links:
- Disability and Study Abroad
- Religion and Study Abroad
- Race and Study Abroad
- GLBT Students and Study Abroad
- Gender and Study Abroad
- Brown University's Diversity Issues in Study Abroad
- The Plato Project
- IES Abroad Country-specific Diversity Resources
Students with disabilities face unique challenges and growth opportunities in the study abroad experience. However, they may find themselves better equipped to deal with these challenges due to past experiences being part of an underserved group. With proper planning and communication, this experience can be tremendously rewarding for the student and host community. Each culture differs in the way people perceive and accommodate levels of ability. For these reasons, it is important to do the following:
- Disclose any disability to the study abroad program as early as possible in order to ensure that the program is right for you and that necessary arrangements can be made.
- Prepare yourself with the language skills to talk about your disability with those on your program and in your host country.
- Anticipate differences in the way your host community may provide support. Your host culture may have different perceptions or may handle disability differently. Remember too, that you may be studying with students from all over the world who will bring their culturally specific expectations with them, which may differ from yours, and/or your host culture.
- Prepare yourself by reading about your host culture and by talking to alumni of your program. This is the best way to ensure that you understand the kinds of support and accommodation that will be provided.
For more information about traveling and studying abroad with a disability, please visit the following sites:
Spirituality and religion play an important role in many of our students' lives, and in the lives of the host community members. One of the most exciting and interesting things about experiencing another culture is developing a multi-dimensional understanding of religious traditions and beliefs that differ from our own. To have a successful experience, an open mind regarding religious pluralism and diversity is important for students studying abroad. It is important to explore the religious traditions and beliefs of your host culture, even if the religion in similar to your own. Note as well, that many cultures have more than one religious belief represented. Begin expanding your own understanding of religions across, and within, cultures and how your beliefs fit with those of your host culture by exploring the links below:
Issues of race vary depending on the student and the host country. Some students may be racial minorities at home but study in countries where their race is the majority. Others may be a racial minority for the first time. In many cases, students may find that race is less an issue than their nationalities when abroad. Whatever the situation, it is important for students studying abroad to identify and reflect on their own experiences with racial issues and their own preconceived notions and expectations. Other cultures have very different ways of dealing with these issues, and students may encounter individuals who range from overly curious to completely disinterested in their racial backgrounds. Issues of race and study abroad are wonderful opportunities to examine the ways another culture navigates race and racial issues that may differ from those of your home country. As always, the more aware and prepared you are about these issues in your host culture before departure, the less likely you are to jump to negative conclusions in confusing situations.
Be sure to do research on your host country, as well as consult with your peers who have studied abroad. The links below (also listed at the beginning of this section) will have specific information on race and study abroad.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students should expect to face many of the challenges typical of their heterosexual peers. In fact, some study abroad advisers have noted that GLBT students are better-equipped to deal with common cultural barriers abroad because they may already be familiar with the role of "minority" or "outsider" in adolescence. Levels of tolerance, acceptance, and support for GLBT individuals vary greatly from culture to culture. GLBT students will find their experiences more successful if they prepare themselves by becoming educated on the legal and cultural issues facing GLBT people in their host culture. Follow these links to educate yourself about GLBT issues abroad:
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission with country-specific information
International Lesbian and Gay Association
NAFSA: Association of International Educators Rainbow Special Interest Group
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered U.S. Peace Corps Alumni
Campus Pride: Queer Advice to Study Abroad
MSU GLBT Resource Page
All genders may experience a shift in the importance gender plays in their (perceived) identities while abroad. For men, this might mean they are expected to adopt a more "traditional," machismo attitude toward life and women. For instance, it is considered an acceptable pastime to people-watch and "catcall" to women in some cultures. This may be offensive to a student. On the other hand, men may find more discomfort with the open affection between men in many cultures. In some countries, it is not uncommon for heterosexual male friends to hold hands while walking down the street, or to greet each other with kisses on the cheek. The cultural perceptions and expectations of gender can provide a student with a deeper understanding of the culture as a whole.
Currently, women outnumber men in the number of U.S. students studying abroad. And while the treatment and expectations of women vary greatly from culture to culture, women may encounter restrictions in dress, behavior, and activities. This may at first seem very limiting, but there are also activities and behaviors in these cultures that are women-only. Though this kind of restriction can be frustrating at times, it is also a rare chance to learn about and understand the special roles of women in these cultures.
Transgendered individuals who travel/study abroad can often be met with great confusion and the treatment and expectations will vary. While the concerns are very real, there are a growing number of specific programs for, and resources regarding transgendered individuals.
To learn more about gender issues abroad, please follow these links:
Asian/Pacific Islander American Students
Hispanic American Students
Native American Students
Diversity Issues in Study Abroad
The Diversity Issues in Study Abroad is a collection of quotes by Brown University students about their experiences abroad. The quotes were gathered through a survey of study abroad students returning from either spring semester/ full year 1999-2000 or fall semester 2000-2001 abroad. The survey directly addressed issues of diversity in study abroad including ethnicity, heritage, sexual orientation, religion, minority/majority issues, physical appearance, and language. It was designed to elicit thoughtful and honest responses from participating students. Excerpts from the responses have been taken and corrections in spelling have been made, but otherwise the responses have not been changed.
* Many thanks to Joshua Nelson, University of Massachusetts, Amherst graduate assistant in the spring 2008 for developing these resources.