We recently published a guide to being mindful of the new cultures you’ll experience in your host city and during travels, but what about being respectful of the diversity you’ll encounter within your USAC group and other American students you’re studying abroad with?
After study abroad, many USAC alumni admit that one of their favorite parts of study abroad is the opportunity to meet American students from all types of backgrounds. One of your study abroad goals is probably to make new friends, and chances are that you’ll be with a group of students from all over the United States. Being the melting pot that it is, America is home to a wide variety of cultures, identities, and beliefs.
While you’re probably preparing for the cultural differences of your host country, it’s important to learn to be mindful of those in your USAC family, too. Keep these tips in mind when meeting your study abroad group for the first time (and be sure to remember that your USAC family extends beyond USAC students to on-site staff, Resident Directors, local students, host families, and university faculty!).
Understand the Vast Diversity Within the U.S. (and therefore your USAC program)
If you know anything about our home country, it’s that no two Americans are the same. From the North Slope of Alaska to the southern tip of Florida and everything in between, we’re fortunate to live in a melting pot of cultures. USAC works with students from all over the country, so chances are that you’ll be studying abroad with people unlike yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up in researching the culture of your host country and preparing for the culture shock that will come, but don’t forget that there will likely be diversity and cultural differences within your USAC program.
Be prepared to meet students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and socio-economic status who all have various histories, mental health conditions, physical abilities, and/or sexual identities. Staying open-minded about everyone you encounter will not only bring you closer to your new USAC friends but will help you develop adaptability and acceptance (P.S. – these are valuable skills to boost your resume, too!).
Know that Every Student’s Study Abroad Needs and Experiences Will Be Different
Not every student in your group is going to have the same priorities, goals, and needs as you do during your time abroad. And that’s okay! Know that each student will land with a unique set of requirements (dietary restrictions, medical needs, a must-do bucket list, etc.) and will have a different set of expectations for their time abroad.
It’s important to understand that every student comes from a unique background of cultural exposure (hi, tip #1!), and therefore will have their own goals and comfort levels when it comes to exploring and branching out. For many students, academic success is their number one priority; for others, tracing their roots and connecting with their heritage is more important; some students will want to travel and explore new lands; and some will be seeking out a home in your host city’s LGBTQ+ community. You may fall somewhere in between a few of these, or you may have unique goals all your own. Either way, be sure to be respectful of everyone else and don’t discredit their priorities because they do not align with your own.
Remember that Fitting in Isn’t Just About Skin Color
Racial diversity (or the lack of in some countries) can play a big role in a students’ sense of belonging. However, skin tone or genetics doesn’t always automatically ensure safety, comfort, and immediate cultural immersion. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to hear of stories from USAC alumni who felt that they didn’t fit in with the culture of their host city, despite being of the same ethnic descent. For many, study abroad is a time to explore their identity and connect with their roots, but that can often lead to some surprises and more questions. For example, don’t automatically assume that an American student of Chinese descent isn’t experiencing culture shock, a language barrier, homesickness, or any other number of struggles during study abroad in China.
On that note, be mindful of how your friends are handling common study abroad hurdles like culture shock and homesickness. Study abroad can be tough for everyone at some point, so don’t assume that just because you’re fine means that everyone else in your group is fine. Check in with your friends and give them the support they need (hint: these alumni tips for managing mental health can help.).
Be an Ally
The term “ally” is typically used in relation to LGBTQ+, but we’re talking about being a supportive force for any and all USAC students. Every single country has its own political views, social movements, and spectrum of acceptance, most of which we don’t have control over. However, you can stand up to stereotypes and any offensive behaviors among your USAC peers, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your RD or Program Advisor for help. Do what you can to make sure your friends feel safe, supported, and included, and they’ll likely do the same for you. From speaking out against offensive language or jokes, to helping your dyslexic classmate study for an exam, to rooming with a trans student, there are a million big (and small) ways you can make study abroad positive for your entire group.
If one of your study abroad goals is to expand your world view and learn about other people and cultures, start with your USAC group! Being mindful of the diversity within your group and making an effort to make this experience inclusive for everyone will not only create a stronger bond between you and the other students in your group, it will teach you how to keep an open mind when meeting people from anywhere in the world.