Studying abroad can be an immensely rewarding academic, personal and professional experience. It is a chance to explore the world, learn about a new culture, push your boundaries and grow as a person. Studying abroad also challenges you to think about your own identity in a new cultural context. You may find that aspects of your identity that you may not have thought about or may have taken for granted here in the United States are now a defining part of who you are in a new environment. Below are a few considerations and resources that should help you make an informed decision about your study abroad options. If you have particular identity-based concerns as it relates to studying abroad, please reach out to a Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement adviser.
In addition to looking at coursework options and housing choices it’s important to begin to think about how aspects of your identity can affect your study abroad experience. You may be curious about how your gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality and other identities may impact your experience overseas. The best way to begin to understand is by researching in advance. We encourage you to talk to former study abroad students, Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement advisers as well as consult websites, newspaper articles and/or books.
Cultural Differences about Identity and Diversity
No matter where you study, you are bound to encounter cultural differences in many spheres of life. Keep in mind how a U.S. college student may appear to local people. Notice differences in the behavior of students of your gender and age. As in the United States, attitudes regarding gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation vary region by region. Each country has unique histories, cultural values and social norms about these topics. At Columbia and most colleges and universities in the U.S., we believe that cultural understanding is an important part of our community and diversity is critical to our learning. We expect that our students will be sensitive to new cultural contexts and enter any situation willing to learn and be open. You may find that people in your study abroad country believe in the same ideals. In fact, some countries may have laws and attitudes that are more progressive than in the United States. This may allow you time to reflect and a new sense of freedom and exploration. Alternatively, you may find a lack of understanding about the importance of cultural sensitivity and diversity. Be aware that prejudices which exist in American culture may be found in your host culture as well. You could experience behavior, language and terminology which you may find offensive. This may make you feel ostracized and isolated, which is compounded by being away from support networks in the United States. Again, it’s important to research and understand the cultural climate of your study abroad location. This will create realistic expectations of what your experience could entail.
As a student studying abroad, you will be subject to any law of that country. It is important that you research laws about anti-discrimination, hate crimes and sexual consent and behavior.
Support Networks and Safety
Having a support network while abroad is extremely helpful. A support network will help you cope and can guide you in times of need. Try to make friends that you can talk with on the program or create a connection with a program staff or faculty member you feel you can be open with throughout the experience. You may find that there are student clubs on your program for different identity groups. Meeting people in the country also can be helpful when you feel lost or confused, so try to get out and immerse yourself in the culture. Having support includes having safe places that you can identify across the region. This might be a police station, the program headquarters, or an organization's office. Know their location and have a plan of action if the need arises.
Identity and Housing Abroad
Living arrangements while abroad will differ by program. No matter where you are staying, you should feel safe and comfortable at all times. To facilitate a positive experience, you should honestly fill out any housing questionnaires. You should talk to the program housing director to see if they can put you with roommates or a family accepting of certain aspects of your identity. If you feel that your homestay family or roommates are being discriminatory, don’t be afraid to speak up and discuss the issue with your program.
It is important to be self-aware of the way you interact with people while abroad. Verbal cues, body language and demeanor in romantic and platonic relationships may be interpreted differently abroad than at home. Something can elicit a completely different response than you expect, so be aware of this and try to learn the particular customs of your region.
As in the United States, the intersections of your identities will be part of your study abroad experience. One new identity that will become more pronounced for you while abroad is your home country's identity, i.e. an American. Think about how the intertwining aspects of your identity may shift and change abroad.
Not all programs may be helpful or have the necessary resources that you may desire. A bit of internet research can often reveal helpful organizations that can provide rich insight. Start with a basic search through websites and social networking sites and go from there. Student blogs can be an especially rich resource as they provide personal accounts and explore a realistic picture of day to day life.
Below are some additional resources that the Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement has gathered from students and peer institutions. Resources by individual identity group are also listed below. If you find something that is useful that you’d like to add, please let us know!
- Many times your study abroad program will have information and resources to help you navigate your new cultural climate. You should examine the program website for information, but feel free to call or email a program representative as well.
- Multicultural Affairs - Columbia College and Columbia Engineering
- The Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement (UGE) Advisers: UGE advisers are available to discuss your concerns and options open to you.
- Peer Advisers: We hire returned study abroad students as Peer Advisers every year. Peer Advisers are a valuable resource to understanding the contemporary Columbia student experience abroad.
- Studyabroad.com handbook: Helpful information on study abroad, including the article: "Exploring Cultural Differences" by Bill Hoffa.
- Diversity Issues In Study Abroad: The Diversity Issues in Study Abroad booklet is a collection of quotes by Brown University students about their experiences abroad.
- Diversity Abroad Website: Diversity Abroad provides a number of resources directly related to diversity and inclusion.
- SIT Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Resources: SIT has compiled a list of resources for students interested in learning more about the respective topics.
- Unpacked by IFSA-Butler: Blogs from students in different identity categories.
- ISOS Itinerary Reviews: This resource will help in better understanding the city and surrounding areas, as it relates to safety.
Considerations and Resources by Identity
Below we’ve listed some thoughts, questions and resources that may help you begin to reflect on your expected experience by identity group.
First Generation College Students Abroad
If you are the first in your family to go to college, you and/or your family may have extra questions about the study abroad experience. You may be worried about safety or you may feel nervous about how to prepare. At the Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement, we’re here to help and support you and your family throughout the study abroad experience. Our webpage describes the Steps to Study Abroad, including information about finances, eligibility, credit and how to begin your search. When exploring and evaluating study abroad options, it is important to consider a few items - our Choosing a Program webpage should be helpful. You can also connect with an UGE adviser to discuss your plans in detail.
Growing up in the United States has exposed you to societal gender roles that can be different abroad. Since you will be viewed according to the gender expectations of the host culture, you may feel uncomfortable at times. What may be appropriate and friendly behavior in the United States may bring you unwanted attention in another culture. In some cultures, women may be at a higher risk of traveling than others, so please be mindful, especially when traveling alone. Remember to always put your safety first and to know local resources to turn to in case of an emergency.
- What is the perception of gender roles and how do they differ from those at home?
- Are gender roles well defined or are they more fluid? Are they restrictive or progressive?
- What is the role of men and women in the workplace? In a family unit? At home?
- Are there men or women in roles of power? How do they shape politics, business, society?
- Are there norms for men and women in regards to dress, personal space, body language?
- Is it common for people of the opposite gender to be in platonic relationships, in addition to romantic ones? What are dating customs and practices?
- Is cat-calling a common practice? Is staring? How do local/indigenous people respond?
- Sexual Harassment And Prevention In College Students Studying Abroad
- Transitions Abroad: Women Travel
- Columbia’s Office of Sexual Respect
As an international student in the U.S. (i.e. F-1 or J-1 visa holders, U.S. permanent residents, anyone who defines themselves as "international"), you are already studying abroad. However, it doesn’t mean that your study abroad experiences are limited to studying in the United States. UGE and your program can work with you to facilitate your academic and cross-cultural growth while you consider studying outside of the U.S. It is helpful if you connect with us and consult with the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) as early as possible in the process. This allows for advanced planning to ensure you have proper visa documentations to enter the country you plan to study abroad and to return to the U.S. as an international student.
Questions to consider and speak with your Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement adviser/ISSO adviser include:
What country do you plan to study abroad? In how many countries will you study or visit?
What is your citizenship? What are the entry requirements for you to enter your study abroad country (including transfers) as a citizen of your country?
What is your immigration status in the U.S. (F-1, J-1, U.S. permanent residents, others)? Have you connected with the ISSO regarding documentations need to re-enter the U.S. once you complete your study abroad experience?
How might your study abroad plan impact your participation in future Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
How is your course enrollment fulfilled in your study abroad program? It’s important to know your enrollment status to meet U.S. immigration requirements.
Will you be studying abroad for more than 5 months? If so, please contact Columbia ISSO as you might need to apply for a new visa before you can return to the U.S.
Resources for International Students
What does being LGBTQ in another country mean? Sexual orientation and gender identity/expression is expressed and interpreted abroad in a variety of ways. In some countries LGBTQ individuals have supportive social communities, have legal protections and have as many rights as other members of society. There are other places where identifying as LGBTQ is not as openly welcomed and where expressing one's sexual orientation, sexuality, gender identity and/or gender expression in particular ways can be punishable by law. Understanding the legal and cultural environment may help you decide what study abroad site might make sense for you. You can decide whether or not to be open about your sexuality and/or gender identity. You may decide to keep this information private until you understand the environment. You may decide to publicly come out right away. In thinking about what study abroad sites make most sense given your identity as an LGBTQ person, please consider the following questions:
- What do rights for LGBTQ individuals look like? Are there laws that protect against discrimination, bias and hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals? Are there laws that ban sexual relations with people of the same-sex? What are marriage equality laws? What are laws surrounding the inclusion of transgender communities?
- What are the interpretations of LGBTQ terms such as gay, straight, bisexual, queer, transgender, non-binary, etc. in your host country? Do they align your definitions?
- Is the use of gender neutral pronouns practiced?
- Is public affection a common practice? Is it common for individuals in queer relationships to show public affection?
- Are there communities where you can meet other individuals who identify as LGBTQ?
- OutRight Action International
- International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association
- Rainbow SIG
Religion and Spirituality Abroad
The religious background of a country can often have a significant effect on cultural norms and day to day life. It is important to understand how your own religious beliefs will align or differ from the general spiritual culture. Below are some questions to help you prepare.
- Does the culture tend to be more secular or religious?
- What is the dominant religion of the society? Do cultural values reflect the religious history or background?
- What are traditional days of worship?
- How are religious holidays observed and celebrated?
- Are there centers of worship that you will be able to attend services at?
- If you have dietary restrictions, will you be able to find appropriate food options?
- Can I safely practice my religion where I am staying?
- Office of the University Chaplain
- The Pluralism Project at Harvard University
- International Religious Freedom Report from Department of State
- KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad
Students of Color
New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and you will more than likely be studying in a culture that is less diverse. Students of color should be aware that additional efforts may be needed to adjust to the host culture. You may decide to study abroad in the country of your cultural heritage, allowing you to explore your identity from a new perspective. You may study abroad in a country where the color of your skin will make you look like locals, and people may make assumptions of you based on this. In some places, you may still be in the racial and/or ethnic minority, and you may experience locals staring at you or asking you personal questions. Just like in the United States, there is discrimination everywhere against any group defined as the ‘other.’ Be aware that you may encounter discriminatory or racist remarks. This may be based on ignorance or simple curiosity due to lack of exposure to other members of your group. You should always feel comfortable talking to your program or our staff about an uncomfortable situation. It’s important to talk to others about these topics and help make an informed decision about your study abroad experience.
- What is the racial and ethnic background of your study abroad country?
- Are there anti-discrimination laws?
- What is this country’s history of colonization? Race relations? Power and privilege?
- Are there immigrant communities in your country and how are they viewed?
- Is there slang or language used in this country that could be considered offensive?
- If studying abroad in a place where you are the racial and/or ethnic minority, are there spaces for you to connect with others who identify similarly to you?
- PLATO – The Center for Global Education Project for Learning Abroad, Training and Outreach
- Diversity Abroad
Students with Disabilities
The Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement (UGE) endeavors to assist in providing reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. Know that your exact accommodations may not be available abroad. However, the UGE and your program will work with you to access the best available information. It is helpful if you notify us and your program as early as possible in the process. This allows for advanced planning by the appropriate offices to potentially implement any accommodations. If you are registered with the Office of Disability Services (ODS), we recommend following up with the ODS to obtain a letter outlining necessary accommodations that you can forward to your program. Questions to consider and speak with your Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement adviser about include:
- What accommodations may be available abroad?
- What program resources exist for students with disabilities?
- How might mobility limitations affect day to day life in your host country? What accessibility measures exist?
- How will a change of environmental affect your physical and mental health and wellness?
- How will you continue to commute with doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, etc. while abroad, if needed?