Your time abroad will be more enriching and enjoyable if you learn about yourself and your host country or countries beforehand. Regardless of how much preparation you do ahead of time, you will still learn new things every day abroad, but researching and preparing ahead of time will allow you to have a more enriching experience and to better manage some of the challenges that are inevitable in study abroad. There is no one person or source that can tell you all you need to know. Utilize a variety of resources including materials at the library, websites, past program participants, friends and faculty who have been to the destination(s), government information, and media.
As you plan to live in a new culture, it is important to understand your own identity and to prepare yourself for how various aspects of your identity will impact your experiences abroad. Living in a new culture, you may find that an aspect of your identity that is very important to you when in the U.S. is not as relevant while you are abroad. Or you may find that an aspect of your identity that seems to be less significant to you in the U.S. is very important in how people in your host culture perceive you.
Just like in the United States, groups of people in every country and culture will have some beliefs, myths, stereotypes, and prejudices about different aspects of personal identity. It is important to remember that different beliefs and values are not a question of right or wrong. You will be a guest in your host culture(s), and it is not your role to change the culture or its values. Learning more about your own identity will help you function better within the host culture.
All aspects of your identity have the potential to be impacted, challenged, and strengthened while abroad. The information below has been developed to address aspects of identity that tend to have significant impacts on some students’ experiences abroad.
Racial and Ethnic Identity Abroad
Students abroad will always interact with a culture that is very different from their own. Students abroad will also interact with people who come from racial and ethnic backgrounds different from their own. No matter which group students identify with, all students should prepare themselves for attitudes on race and ethnicity in their host countries. Students who are visiting an ancestral home should be especially prepared. Many heritage-seekers are surprised that local people identify them primarily as U.S. Americans. For instance, Irish-Americans who visit Ireland or African-Americans who visit Ghana may both be identified simply as ‘Americans.’ Elon students from international backgrounds who study abroad will have added dimensions to consider.
Some important questions for students to consider:
- With which group or groups do I identify?
- How are these groups viewed in my host culture?
- What are the dominant racial and ethnic groups within my host country?
- What is the history of my host country in regard to race and ethnicity?
- How might the different facets of my identity interact with my host country culture?
Information on race and ethnicity abroad is available from a wide variety of sources. Students should consult the historical information on their host country as well as the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for an overview of prevailing attitudes in their countries. Students from underrepresented populations are encouraged to utilize the Elon Multicultural Center and may also find the following links and sources helpful:
Sexual Orientation and Identity
If you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, it is very important to consider what the local attitudes, beliefs, and laws are in your host country in regards to LGBTQ issues. Some countries abroad have much more liberal views than the U.S. on these issues and provide greater rights and legal protection to LGBTQ individuals. Other countries have more conservative views on sexual orientation and identity and provide little or no rights or legal protection to the LGBTQ community. In many countries homosexuality remains a crime and can result in harsh punishment. Two sources to consult on the status of LGBTQ rights and legal protection around the world are the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Some Important Questions for LGBTQ Students to Consider:
- Do I plan to be out as LGBTQ while I am abroad?
- Is it safe for me to be out in my host country and city?
- Is homosexuality legal in my host country?
- Is identifying as LGBTQ culturally acceptable in my host culture?
- Are there LGBTQ organizations at my host university or in my host city?
- Do I have concerns about my housing situation?
The Rainbow Specific Interest Group of NAFSA: Association of International Educators provides resources on their website for LGBTQ students to help you answer these and other questions. Do not hesitate to consult your advisor in the GEC if you have questions or concerns about LGBTQ issues abroad. You can also contact Spectrum, the LGBTQ student organization at Elon. They may be able to put you in contact with other LGBTQ students from Elon who have studied abroad in your host country.
Gender roles differ from culture to culture, and even within cultures. It is important for you to consider how you identify with your gender and how your gender may impact your experience in your host country. This is important for both men and women, and is especially important if you identify as transgender or gender-queer. Your gender may impact how and with whom you are able to interact, how others perceive you, what you can wear, and where you can go. It may afford you greater or lesser privilege than you enjoy in the U.S. There may also be differences in how locals are treated based on gender and how foreigners are treated based on gender.
Some women from the U.S. are surprised by greater levels of equality of women and men in certain countries. Others struggle to integrate in a culture where women are expected to assume more traditional roles in the home. Men from the U.S. may be uncomfortable if they enjoy certain privileges in the host culture which women on their program do not.
Some important questions to consider about gender:
- What are the dominant attitudes and perceptions about my gender in my host culture?
- Will there be new or different expectations of me based on my gender?
- What are the cultural norms about appropriate dress for my gender?
- Are there any specific safety issues related to gender in my host country?
- Are housing and other facilities genderqueer and transgender-friendly?
In addition to researching information ahead of time, it is important to speak with and take cues from your local counterparts in the host culture. Observe and follow their behavior and dress when appropriate.
Countries all over the world have varying belief systems and expectations of religion. The religious practices and beliefs of your host country may not be the same as your religious views. You may want to research the religion of your host country and whether your faith is practiced in that region.
Some important questions to consider regarding religion:
- Do I plan to practice my religion abroad?
- Is my religion legal in my host country?
- Is my religion culturally acceptable in my host country?
- What religion or religions are the most prevalent in my host country?
- Are there organizations for my religion in my host university or city?
- Do I have concerns about my religion abroad?
If you are religious or actively practice a religion, you should consider getting involved with the host country’s local resources. This is a great way to keep practicing and to meet new people. The Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life is a great resource for discussing your religious beliefs.
Students With Disabilities
Students with disabilities are encouraged to disclose their disabilities early in the process of planning a study abroad experience. This will allow students sufficient time to investigate a number of options for programs that meet their academic interests and to explore the availability of accommodations prior to making a program selection.
It is important to remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are not in force outside of the United States. It is the student’s responsibility to disclose any disability that requires accommodation and to make plans for their needs.
Accommodations which represent a fundamental alteration of the program or that create an undue hardship will not be provided. All decisions regarding accommodations will be made on a case-by-case basis. If accommodations are needed and not available at a particular site, then students may not be qualified to participate in that specific program.
If additional accommodation needs arise while the student is abroad, students must discuss these needs with Disabilities Services and the study-abroad site to determine whether the additional accommodations are reasonable and appropriate.
If a student chooses to not disclose disability-related needs prior to arrival at their host institution, the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center (GEC), Disabilities Services, and the host institution will determine if accommodations are possible. It may not be feasible to make arrangements for accommodations requested too close to the departure date or once on site. Visit the Studying Abroad with Disabilities webpage or the following links and sources for more information.
Know Your Host Country
Take time to learn about your host culture. Even if you think you know everything you need to know, there is always more to learn. The better you prepare yourself for your time abroad, the more you will get out of the experience. The information below will let you know some of the topics you should explore and some of the resources you can use. You will take some of these items abroad with you but the recommended research below is to be done before you depart.
The Culturegram provided to by the GEC provides a broad overview of the various aspects of your host country with which you should become familiar. These are not comprehensive profiles of your host country but give you an idea of the different topics you should consider as you research further. A brief political summary about any country can be found in the CIA World Factbook. The Center for Global Education provides a general handbook and country-specific resources for students preparing to study abroad.
It is generally a very good idea to purchase a guidebook for the country and city where you will be traveling. Most guidebooks contain brief introductions to the history and culture of the location as well as practical information about day-to-day interactions. Some guidebooks are available in Belk Library, and you can find other books at most bookstores. Reading through a guide book ahead of time will help you to prepare for some of the daily experiences you will encounter and to understand some of the logistics of where you will be – transportation, daily schedules, meal times, currency, etc. Guidebooks that have been recommended by students include Fodor’s, Let’s Go Guides, Lonely Planet Guides and Rough Guides.
Being informed about current events in your host country and in the U.S. will benefit you greatly. Daily conversations with friends and host as well as discussions in classes will frequently revolve around current events in politics, the economy, sports, and other areas. Being knowledgeable about what is going on in your host country ahead of time will enable you to participate more fully in conversations, in and out of class. Following the news also gives you great insight into what is important in a culture. As you follow the media, take note of what stories make the front page, how news is reported, and what topics are not covered at all.
Begin reading international newspapers or other news websites from your host country ahead of departure. If you are not able to read news in the local language and an English-language media site is not available, look for news stories about the country in major English-language news sites such as the New York Times, BBC and CNN.
If you will be studying in a non-English-speaking country, it is important to prepare yourself ahead of time. If you have not previously studied the language, consider buying a phrasebook and a translation dictionary from your host language into English and vice versa. You may be able to find programs for your handheld devices. Try to learn some basic phrases ahead of time: “hello”, “excuse me”, “please”, “thank you”, “do you speak English?”, “how much does this cost”, etc. Even if you are not able to follow them, find radio programs or movies on-line that are in the language of your host country. Listening to them will help you to become familiar with the rhythm and intonations of the language, and it will not be as shocking to you when you arrive and it is all around you. Some students also choose to use online programs or language-learning software to acquire basic knowledge ahead of time.
Belk Library has a license for Mango online language-learning software for Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. To take advantage of this resource, visit Elon University’s Language Learning Center.
If you have already studied the language, keep using it. Practice on your own, with friends, family, and faculty who might speak the language. Listen to programs on the radio or watch movies or television shows in that language. If you will be studying entirely in the language while abroad, it is advisable to buy a monolingual dictionary in addition to a translation dictionary.