Identity Abroad

Preparing for identity considerations abroad is an important part of any study abroad journey. It’s important to do your research and learn about the host country or destination of your program, including how different aspects of your identity might be perceived in another cultural context.

As you explore your study abroad and away options, consider different aspects of your identity. Taking the time to learn about social norms, cultural mores, and local practices will help you navigate how these aspects of your identity may be perceived and treated in your program location. Review the following sections for important considerations and resources for different social identities.

Note: Even if you may not personally relate or have connection to some of the outlined identities, learning how they might be perceived in your program location can help you be a supportive ally to your peers.

  • Gender

    Whether you’ve traveled before or this is your first time, it’s important to consider your program location’s cultural attitude towards gender identity. Gender roles abroad may differ from those you are used to at home. You may choose not to behave in exactly the same ways as local men and women may behave. However, it is important that you educate yourself about cultural gender norms within your host community in order to make safe and sensitive choices about how you will behave and to understand how your personal views and opinions may be interpreted by your host culture. Here are some important things to consider: 

    Roles, behavior and relationships may differ:
    Your behavior in some situations may be viewed differently in your program destination than at home. Consider your actions and inform yourself as best as possible about behavioral expectations, dress codes, dating, and relationships in your host culture. Talk with peers who have experience in your host culture and locals your own age to gauge what’s typical and why those norms are in place. You may find that what is viewed as acceptable behavior in your host culture is offensive to you or makes you uncomfortable. It’s important to check societal expectations with your own personal values. 

    The norms for relationships and how those may differ between people of different genders can also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultural differences can make friendships between men and women more challenging. Consider the implicit messages you are communicating, messages that you may not intend to send in your own cultural context. Evaluating societal differences when it comes to these relationships and modifying your behavior accordingly is part of learning and relating to another culture.

    The ways in which gender is constructed and legally defined in the United States may not correspond with cultural norms and definitions in other countries. Studying abroad or away allows you the opportunity to explore culturally-specific patterns of gender norms that may be different from what you are used to with a variety of genders. 

    Sexual harassment or assault may look different:
    Harassment may be particularly difficult to identify abroad or away, where cultural norms are often different than at home. However, cultural sensitivity does not mean that you need to submit to behaviors that invade your personal boundaries or make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Women may experience particular difficulties while abroad or away, which can be compounded by language and cultural differences, as well as risk factors related to health and safety. Being a target of a crime is not the fault of the survivor. You can practice risk reduction strategies by monitoring your intoxication level, not accepting drinks from strangers, and traveling with multiple people. Educating yourself about sexual harassment, violence, and gender dynamics in your host culture can empower you and your peers. 

    Questions to consider:

    Take some time to research these aspects of your program location and gender roles in the culture where you plan to study. Some questions to consider include:

    • What are the society’s perceptions and expectations for men, women and transgender individuals in my host culture? What are the expected gender roles?
    • What are the legally recognized genders in the host culture?
    • What disadvantages and privileges are associated with gender in the host culture? 
    • If going overseas, what are the gender stereotypes of Americans in your host country?
    • How do your personal values compare with your host culture’s attitudes about socially accepted gender roles?
    • If your gender identity is considered illegal or taboo in the host location, how will you manage this during your program? What coping strategies can you use?

    International and Campus Resources

    • Diversity Abroad: Tips for women studying abroad
    • SJSU Gender Equity Center: Advocates for social justice, respect, and safety for all members of the San José State University community by educating on issues experienced by people because of their gender, gender identity, and/or their perceived gender/gender identity, through an intersectional lens 
    • Title IX and Gender Equity Office: Resources for reporting incidents of and protections around sex discrimination or sexual misconduct

    You may already identify as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer student, or you may still be exploring your identity. In either case, you will find that the laws, social climate, and personal interactions of other cultures will often differ from the U.S. While researching programs and destinations, it is important to reflect on the culturally-based ideas and definitions of gender and sexual identity and consider how your identity as a LGBTQIA+ person may influence your relationships with the local people, your cultural adjustment, and your overall study abroad or away experience.

    Here are some important considerations for LGBTQIA+ students as you research programs:

    Learn about the customs, attitudes and context in your program destination:
    In some cultures, understandings of "gay" and "straight" are not acknowledged or may have a different historical context or social attitude associated with them than in the U.S.  People involved in same-sex relationships may not see this as an identity. In other cultures, there are active social movements for civil rights for sexual and gender minorities. Similar expressions or behaviors may also have vastly different meanings in different places. For example, expressions of friendship (such as eye contact, a smile, touching, and physical proximity) may be quite different from those expressed among your U.S. peers and cause you to experience confusion or uncertainty about who may or may not be LGBTQIA+. When searching for programs, it is important for you to research the LGBTQIA+ climate of the location you plan to visit. Refer to the resources listed below and consider the following questions during your research:

    • What are the cultural and local attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity in my host culture? 
    • What is the social perception of members of the LGBTQIA+ community? How are members of this community socially defined? How is the transgender community viewed in the host culture?
    • What are the norms and behavioral expectations within the LGBTQIA+ community in my host culture? 
    • Does your right to be LGBTQIA+ in the United States conflict with your host culture's religious or cultural values and traditions?

    Learn the laws of your program location regarding sexual and gender identity:
    The laws governing LGBTQIA+ relationships and sexual activity differ from country to country. Regardless of your country of citizenship, you will need to abide by the laws of the host culture. Knowing these laws can help you make safe choices and decide if you will pursue relationships while abroad or away. Even if you do not plan to have a sexual relationship while away, you should be informed about local laws pertaining to sexual behavior and sexual/gender identity. Understanding this will help you decide where you would, or would not, want to study. You should research:

    • The legality of same-sex sexual behavior (sometimes male-male sexual behavior is illegal while female-female sexual behavior is not), including sodomy laws
    • The age of consent for same-sex sexual behavior (which may differ from the age of consent for opposite-sex sexual behavior)
    • Restrictions on freedom of association or expression for LGBTQIA+ people
    • Anti-discrimination laws (these can be national laws or specific to local areas)
    • Existence of “public decency” or “public indecency” laws

    For information on laws in countries you may be visiting, please review LGBTQIA rights around the world.

    International and Campus Resources

  • Race and Ethnicity

    It’s important to be aware of your racial and ethnic identity as you prepare for your venture into other cultures. Depending on where you are going, racial and ethnic definitions and identities may not be as clearly defined or may be considered differently than in the United States or your home community. People may mistakenly associate you with local ethnic groups based solely on your appearance (skin color, language, history, etc). Or your nationality, particularly if you are an American, may become the first point of reference for others before your racial and ethnic identity. This may be the first time in your life that you experience what it feels like to feel or appear different from everyone else around you. Or you may find yourself as part of a racial or ethnic majority for the first time, which may shape your experience differently. If you’re visiting a place where you have ethnic or racial roots, you may have to consider the local norms and expectations in ways that other students with different backgrounds may not. 

    Studying abroad or away is also an opportunity to learn how your host culture uniquely experiences the world and addresses issues of race and ethnicity. It’s important to acknowledge that racism can and does exist outside of the U.S., but the concept of race could be very different in another cultural context. 

    You can prepare yourself for the situations you may encounter by researching the minority, majority, and plurality racial and ethnic composition of your destination and exploring its history of racial and ethnic relations. Below are some questions to consider for further research and reflection:

    • What characteristics of your physical appearance (hair, skin color, etc), your history, and your racial identity are most talked about in the U.S. or your home community? Which aspect of your identity are you most comfortable or uncomfortable to talk about?
    • What are some of the racial and ethnic groups in your host culture? What are some of the prevailing histories of positive contributions (cultural, economic, social, political, etc) as well as negative stereotypes of these groups? 
    • What might be some prevailing feelings and thoughts in your host culture about American culture, politics and racial discrimination?

    International & Campus Resources

  • Accessibility

    SJSU students with disabilities and accessibility considerations have successfully studied abroad and away. In so many ways, students who have persevered in life with learning, physical, mental, emotional disabilities may be better equipped to overcome the usual challenges of a study abroad or away experience. With an appropriate level of planning with the Study Abroad & Away (SAA) office and the Accessible Education Center (AEC), studying abroad or away can be a highly rewarding experience for you.

    While attitudes and perceptions about accessibility and accommodations for students with emotional, mental, learning, or physical disabilities may vary in different programs and locations, the SAA office is here to support you throughout your study abroad or away journey. Students registered with the Accessible Education Center (AEC) who are eligible for on-campus accommodations are also eligible for accommodations abroad when it can be arranged. The key to a successful experience is planning; we encourage you to disclose any accessibility concerns so we can best support you. Information you share with SAA and the AEC is confidential and cannot be shared with others unless there is a need to know. Depending on your program, locations can differ on the level of accommodations available.

    Consider the below questions as you explore program options:

    • What are my primary goals for study abroad and what types of programs will help me achieve them? 
    • How can I prepare for adjustments (e.g., dietary changes, food allergies, language barriers, sensory overload, environmental factors like high elevation, etc.) in the program location?
    • What are the physical environments like in the program location? What do academics look like on my program (e.g. mainly lecture, independent research, etc)?
    • How might my accessibility considerations impact which program I choose? What reasonable accommodations will I need in order to participate fully on program field trips, lectures, excursions, etc?
    • How are people with disabilities viewed in the host culture? If going abroad, does my host country have a law similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
    • How will I plan ahead to manage my condition during the program? If I utilize academic, medical, psychological, or other resources at SJSU, how can I utilize resources while away?
    • Do I feel comfortable disclosing my condition to my Study Abroad and Away advisor or the Accessible Education Center (AEC)?
      Note: Health conditions and/or disability considerations are not factored into application decisions. Our first priority is to help you have a safe and positive experience abroad. We encourage you to disclose early in the process so we can support you in addressing these considerations.

    Prescription Medication Considerations

    If you are taking prescription medications, it's important to research how you will access these medications abroad. Start the process outlined below early.

    • Talk with your prescribing physician well in advance of your program departure about obtaining an adequate supply of prescription medications you need for the duration of your study abroad program.
    • Research whether your medication is available and legal in your countries of interest. The U.S. Embassy for the host country and the International Narcotics Control Board has information on controlled substances per country.
    • When traveling, carry your prescription medications in your carry-on bag in their original container along with the hard-copy prescription with your physician's explanation of the condition and the generic and brand names of the medication and dosage information.
    • Do not mail medications abroad; this will require customs paperwork and may be delayed in delivery.
    • Rehearse how you will explain your disability in the language of your host country. Look up key vocabulary words ahead of time.
    • Review the CDC’s Traveling Abroad with Medicine and Mobility International’s prescription medications tip sheet for more information related to availability, legality, coverage of costs, back-up supply, time zone changes, and interaction with other medications.

    International & Campus Resources

  • Religion and Spirituality

    Studying abroad or away provides an opportunity to expand or deepen your experience in religious diversity. Depending on the host culture, you could be experiencing for the first time cultures with religious traditions, practices, and symbolisms that may be quite different from your own. Some cultures may not have the same religious tolerance or level of commitment to religious diversity and freedom as you are used to at home. Spending time in a place where the major religion is different from your own can lead to a better understanding of your own notions of spirituality and can further your cultural immersion.

    Take the time to research the religious, faith, and spiritual beliefs of the program locations you are considering to understand their impact on society and reflect on how they may impact your own experience.   

    Questions for further research and reflection:

    • What is my religion? Will I be part of a religious minority or majority in my host culture? 
    • What are the dominant religions in the host culture? What are the major religious holidays?
    • Do I know the level of religious tolerance in the host culture? What is the attitude of people towards other religions? What is my degree of religious tolerance?
    • Would I have access to my religion’s places of worship or religious groups? If not, how will I adjust my religious practice during my program?
    • How large of a role does one’s faith and religion play in the host country? Do people discuss their faith openly or is it observed privately?

    International & Campus Resources

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