Tips for Preparing to Study Abroad as an Underrepresented Student

Whether you’re heading abroad as an underrepresented student or not, you may feel concerned about the potential bias or prejudice you may face during your time abroad. Or if you’re a heritage seeking student you may be excited to be entering into a culture where you expect to feel more welcomed than in the U.S. No matter what you identify as, chances are you will be identified differently abroad as you are in the U.S.

What is diversity?

In today’s evolving higher education landscape, diversity has taken on many meanings. While originally defined as people of different races, diversity has come to encompass characteristics from ethnicity to sexual orientation to religious beliefs, and more.

Every semester, more underrepresented students study abroad. Every student’s study abroad journey is different, and in many cases these students encounter situations that other students would not. Which is why we’ve put together the following tips to help you prepare for study abroad as an underrepresented student.

Diversity Abroad

By its definition, diversity can encompass many groups, but most colleges/universities focus on racial/ethnic minorities, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, and non-traditional students. However, while you may not be considered diverse or a minority at home, you are likely to experience your identity differently while abroad. The more you know about the culture, customs, and laws of your desired host country, the better.

Preparing to Study Abroad

  • Cultivate a relationship with your program advisor or home university staff that allows you to disclose your diverse identity to them. They can help prepare you for what you may experience abroad.
  • Research cultural attitudes toward your identity in your chosen study abroad location.
  • Do not feel discouraged from selecting certain locations based off of what you read or hear. Instead, ask your program advisor and home university study abroad staff for information and resources so that you can make the best possible choice.
  • Understand the health and safety implications of expressing certain identities abroad.
  • Seek out alumni who share a similar identity.

There is a lot you can do before you study abroad in order to better understand the potential situations you may encounter, and prepare yourself for the experience you’re going to have.  If you’re an underrepresented student studying abroad, or simply doing research on being inclusive during study abroad, here are just a few tips you can take with you.

LGBTQ+

Pride festival in Haifa, Israel
Pride festival in Haifa, Israel

Laws and social norms for gender identity and sexual orientation vary between countries and cultures, and foreign governments may or may not provide the same protection of civil liberties that are at home. Carefully research the host country before departure so that you can decide how out to be regarding your sexuality and gender identity abroad. We also recommend learning relevant laws and social norms in addition to being aware of local customs and attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are there any safety concerns for LGBTQ+ individuals in my host country?
  • Do I plan to be open about my sexual orientation/gender identity abroad?
  • What are the laws and rights for LGBTQ+ individuals abroad?
  • What resources are available abroad for LGBTQ+ individuals?

Helpful Resources

Ethnicity and Race

Students in the Pyrenees
Students in the Pyrenees

In many cases while abroad, you will be identified as American first and foremost and should know in advance your host country’s sentiment toward the U.S. Beyond this, your race/ethnicity may be perceived differently in your host country. You may be in the majority at home, but find yourself among the minority abroad, or vice versa. This can be startling or jarring.

It’s important to know that what may seem insensitive back home may not be intended as such abroad. You will need to determine for yourself whether someone is being offensive due to bad intentions or if they’re sincerely curious.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • With which racial or ethnic group(s) do I most identify?
  • How is my race/ethnicity perceived in the culture of my host country?
  • Will I be in the minority while abroad?
  • Are there laws governing ethnic relations in my host country?
  • How should I prepare to react in certain situations?

Helpful Resources

Look for the host country’s page and go to the “People and Society” section, which provides the demographic breakdown by racial/ethnic group and more.

Religion

Celebrating Shabbot Dinner
Celebrating Shabbot Dinner

Religion plays a role in many cultures worldwide. Religion and religious customs may be central to the culture of some countries, while in others, religion is not as prominent. Ask your program advisor and do your own research on the religious affiliation of the host country. It’s important to know how your religious/spiritual beliefs will be perceived and tolerated abroad.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What is the dominant religion in my host country?
  • Do I plan to practice my religion abroad?
  • How is my religion perceived in my host country?
  • Is it safe/legal for me to wear religious symbols or clothing while abroad?

Disabilities

Student talking with Resident Director upon arriving in host country
Student talking with Resident Director upon arriving in host country

Students of all abilities should be encouraged to study abroad. Planning and preparing to live with a disability in a new place can take more time, so if you have a disability it’s best to apply early – ideally a year in advance. Not all accommodations are available abroad; however, the sooner an accommodation request is received, the sooner it can be determined if (and where) accommodations can be met.

Work with your advisor and your home university disability office to provide any necessary forms or documentation to your study abroad program. At USAC, the sooner we know, the more able we are to accommodate a student’s needs.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are accommodations available for my needs in my host country?
  • How are individuals with my disability perceived abroad?
  • Are there any additional costs in my personal spending which I should factor into my budget for studying abroad?

Non-Traditional Students

Sukhothai Historial Park in Thailand
Sukhothai Historial Park in Thailand

Non-traditional or adult students are considered to be older than the typical college age of 18 to 22 years old. A non-traditional student may have other considerations than those of college-aged students, such as jobs, family, mortgages, etc. You may also be looking to get something different out of your time abroad than a traditional student.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are you comfortable studying/living with students younger than yourself?
  • Are there additional requirements/steps/considerations for students of my age?
  • Am I planning to bring any family members with me on my program? If so, what options are available for their participation?

Veterans & Active Service Members

Fortress at Helsinki
Fortress at Helsinki

If you’re a veteran or active service member, speak to a VA representative before studying abroad. Also, research your host country’s perception of the military as well as their diplomatic relationship with the United States.

USAC offers a scholarship specifically for military service (active and veteran status). Encourage your student to apply.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is there any possibility I could get called up for deployment while abroad?
  • Can I use my GI Bill to help pay for study abroad? (Ask the local VA office.)

Helpful resource:

Dietary Restrictions

Enjoying local food in Bengaluru, India
Enjoying local food in Bengaluru, India

The cultural norms and customs of some countries may not match your dietary needs or preferences. In many cases, you can find accommodation for your needs; however, you may have a limited selection of restaurants or housing situations (e.g. homestay). Also, you should be aware that labels, such as vegetarian, do not have the same meaning in all countries. We encourage you to know the words of ingredients you don’t eat in the host country language, rather than just reading the label.

If you have a serious health-related dietary restriction, such as an allergy, it’s strongly encouraged that you learn to communicate in the language of the host country and carry a written version with you to present to avoid confusion.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is my dietary restriction a preference or medically defined? How flexible am I willing or able to be while abroad?
  • What happens if I come into contact with an allergen?
  • Are accommodations available for my dietary restriction(s)?

Helpful resource:

Funding Study Abroad

For some students, paying for study abroad seems impossible, but it’s not! USAC’s goal is for students to gain international experience and grow into engaged citizens of the world, while maintaining affordable program fees. In addition, USAC awards over $1.5 million annually in scholarships and discounts.

There are also a number of third party scholarships and resources available to help. Here are some scholarship opportunities to know about and tips to get them.

Studying abroad is an exciting time, and these tips can help any student make sure to get the most of their study abroad. If you have any questions regarding your identity and experience abroad feel free to reach out to us at studyabroad@usac.edu. Just the same, if you’re an underrepresented student who has already completed a study abroad and are interested in telling your story or being a mentor for other students, email us and let us know!