Identity Considerations

There are certain challenges accompanied with confronting diversity issues in an unfamiliar culture. As in the U.S., students traveling abroad will find that certain people or groups are more open to diversity than others. Students may discover that some aspects of their identity receive additional attention or judgment from the local population when they are abroad, while other aspects of their identity may decrease in visibility if they are more common or accepted among the local population.

This section provides information and resources to help navigate identity considerations while abroad, but know that many more resources exist for you. For further support, reach out to your study abroad advisor. In collaboration with study abroad alumni, the Multicultural Student Services Center, and other partners, the Office for Study Abroad coordinates events throughout the year addressing these identity topics, as well. For more information, sign up for our newsletter and follow our Events page.

Ability Abroad

Students should be prepared for differences in how the concept of "disability" may be culturally defined. Local attitudes towards different disabilities and levels of accessibility for individuals with disabilities can vary greatly from country to country.  As outlined in the Pre-Travel Preparedness section, students needing accommodations should contact the Disability Support Services Office for Study Abroad Support in advance of their time abroad. Additionally, prior to departure and even prior to program selection, OSA encourages students to meet with our staff to discuss any ability-related concerns so we can effectively guide and advocate for them when selecting programs and preparing for study abroad.

Many resources are available to help empower students with disabilities to navigate an international travel experience. The following credible resources are a starting point for the preparation process:

LGBTQ+ Abroad

Perspectives regarding sexual orientation, gender and gender roles, sexual expression and health, and intimacy and relationships - especially in the context of LGBTQ+ identities - are often culturally influenced. These differences in cultural perspectives can make navigating an international travel experience even more complex for an LGBTQ+-identifying student. 

Students should speak with their advisor and research their future host country, before going abroad, to learn about the social customs and laws related to LGBTQ+ identities, sexual activity, and same-sex relationships. Even if you do not plan to have a sexual relationship while away, you should be informed about specific laws pertaining to sexual behavior and sexual/gender identity.

Understanding a potential host country’s attitudes, beliefs, and laws will help you decide where you would, or would not, want to study. You may find that your host country is more accepting of LGBTQ+ identities, and you can be more open about your identity than in the U.S.  For other locations, you may need to hide your sexual or gender identity completely to avoid cultural ostracism or arrest. Navigating either situation may cause internal conflict, and the OSA recommends having a support system either at home or abroad to help you work through some of these new thoughts and emotions. 

To help guide your research prior to selecting a program or departing for your program abroad, review some of the following questions and considerations: 

  1. Does your current expression of your LGBTQ+ identity in the United States conflict with your host country's laws or religious or cultural values and traditions?
  2. How will you reconcile your human rights with the cultural values of your host society?
  3. Are there safety considerations that you should be aware of?
  4. What are gender relations in the host culture?
  5. What are considered the typical gender roles and associated social behavior in the host culture?
  6. What is the social perception of members of the LGBTQ+ community?
  7. What roles do transgender people play in the host culture?
  8. Does your study abroad program offer LGBTQ+ friendly housing?
  9. Does your study abroad program discuss LGBTQ+ considerations during their orientation?
  10. The culture of your host country may make you feel either more comfortable to come out or reversely like you are “sent back into the closet”, do you have a support system prepared to help you in these circumstances?

We recommend the following resources to help you prepare for studying abroad:

Race & Ethnicity Abroad

As you prepare to study abroad, it is important to understand that there may be a discrepancy between how you perceive aspects of your racial, ethnic, or national identity and how individuals in your host community may perceive them. From your hair color to your passport nationality, these differences could affect your interactions with the host culture.  Some students may find themselves in a country where they are part of the majority race or ethnicity for the first time in their life, whereas others may find themselves as the minority for the first time. These interactions and differences in perception could result in a variety of potentially uncomfortable experiences, which may include: 

  • Additional attention and possible staring 
  • Fetishization and Objectification
  • Questioning from locals about where you’re from 
  • Disbelief that you are American or reversely, stereotyping you as American 
  • Possible discrimination or hurtful comments
  • Safety concerns (Note: if you are feeling unsafe while abroad, contact local authorities, your program provider, and/or the Office for Study Abroad)

When considering studying abroad, it is important to consider your identity surrounding your race and ethnicity and how that may impact or change your experiences while abroad. The Office for Study Abroad welcomes open discussions with students regarding any concerns. To help facilitate these conversations, we recommend considering some of the following questions:

  1. How might I be perceived in my host community?
  2. Is it common for students of my race or ethnicity to experience discrimination in the country I’m studying in? Who can I talk to about it if I do?
  3. What is the history of ethnic or racial tension in the country? Is the situation currently hostile to members of a minority race, majority race, or particular ethnicity or religion?
  4. Are issues of racism/ethnic discrimination influenced by immigration in my host country? How do politicized immigration concerns fuel racial tensions? 
  5. Are there laws in the host country governing race relations? Ethnic relations? What protections are offered to ethnic or racial minorities?

Prior to going abroad, it is necessary to understand the community you will be entering. In addition to the following resources, OSA also organizes opportunities for study abroad alumni to be available to help you navigate through these considerations. 

Religion & Spirituality Abroad

Religion is an important aspect of many cultures, and study abroad can expose you to a variety of different belief systems. Whether you practice a religion or not, it is important to understand your beliefs in the context of your future host country’s religious culture and the role religion plays in daily life. 

GW Study Abroad Advisors recommend these tips when abroad: 

  1. Research your destination’s religious tolerance levels.
  2. If you plan to worship abroad, research availability of worship locations for your faith and the safety of these locations.
  3. Use the local religion as a lens to the local culture. Some cultures may welcome you to attend local services, even if you do not believe in the faith. 
  4. Know the local laws concerning religion and, especially, as this relates to anything that may appear to be proselytizing. In some cultures, for instance, even a religious necklace could be considered proselytizing.  
  5. Demonstrate respect- wear appropriate attire, show proper respect to icons, etc.  If you do not know what is appropriate, ask.

For further support in understanding your own religious beliefs in different cultural contexts, review some of our resources below: 

Women Abroad

According to current study abroad demographics, women make up the majority of study abroad students, accounting for 70% of U.S. students abroad annually. Though many women have successful experiences abroad each year, women travelers face greater obstacles when traveling due to differences in their host country’s cultural values, attitudes, and behaviors toward women.  

It is important to understand your host country's gender norms to help set yourself up for success. Many foreigners' perceptions of American women, especially, are influenced by media portrayals. The way you dress or act abroad can reinforce or detract from these stereotypes. Remember that your dress and body language may be commonplace in the U.S. but, in your future host country, your actions may draw unwanted attention. Talk with your Study Abroad Advisor and do research before you go to gain a better understanding of your host country. 

In preparation for your time abroad, consider some of these safety tips:

  1. Review your host country’s women-specific laws. In some countries, women do not have the same rights or may be held accountable even when they are the victim of a crime.
  2. Maintain situational awareness at all times. 
  3. Understand cultural norms for attire, body language, behavior, and friendship.
  4. Use the buddy system whenever possible.

For further support, review some of our resources below:

Military (Active Duty, Veterans, and ROTC)

Through study abroad, active duty, veteran, and ROTC students are often able to gain new perspectives that can enhance and complement the international experience gained through the military. When considering a study abroad experience, your service in the military can be an important factor in deciding on a program location. 

Before selecting a location, please consider the following:

  1. Have you spoken with the appropriate benefits office(s) and your officers, as applicable, to confirm if there are any additional processes for financial assistance or program approval?
  2. Will you need to list your military service on a visa application? Will military service impede your ability to obtain a visa?
  3. Would traveling to your host country cause future security clearance concerns? Is there a way to mitigate these concerns prior to travel?
  4. Do you need to maintain a fitness regimen? Are adequate facilities available at your host location?
  5. How does your host country view military service in general? How do they view the US military internationally or within their own historical context?

Additional resources:

First-Generation Students Abroad

Studying abroad may seem like a daunting or unattainable concept to first generation students. As a first-gen student, your focus may be simply to succeed in completing your degree, and you may not yet understand how studying abroad fits into that. Studying abroad may not have been part of your initial vision for college nor something your family knew much about or pushed you to do. However, with forethought and planning, studying abroad makes you a stronger candidate for future job opportunities and can enhance your overall college experience. As a first generation student, here are some steps you should consider when thinking about study abroad: 

  • Speak with the Office for Study Abroad: Your study abroad advisor can help you understand the realities of studying abroad and the many types of programs offered. 
  • Speak with study abroad alumni: Learn more about how the experience helped them academically, professionally, and personally. 
  • Find support: Talk to your family and friends and work with them to understand your motivations and the benefits of going abroad. 
  • Work out the Finances: Prepare yourself financially - review more information on our Funding page.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Students

There may be risks associated with leaving the United States as a DACA student. To seek more information about resources and support on campus for DACA students as well as legal counsel to help determine if studying abroad is right for you, please consult the GW Resources and Support on Campus page.