Race, ethnicity & religion Students with disabilities Issues of sexual orientation

In a way, every student will be a minority abroad.

No matter what your gender, race,
ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability—just by being American, you will already be different.  People will stare.  You will be looked at and treated differently.  Some students may discover a new perspective on the treatment toward marginalized groups in our own nation.  Let experiences teach empathy, not anger and irritation.


Facing ignorance anywhere is hard enough, but a student abroad can face added internal struggles when his or her identity is challenged by new cultural biases.  They are called “host” countries for a reason—students generally feel indebted to the culture’s hospitality, even when they might be offended by certain views and behaviors.  So what can you do?  Try not to internalize cultural differences as personal attacks.  Study the complex histories that perpetuate cultural values —values will not suddenly turn more pleasing, but they may become more understandable. For students who may be vulnerable to unique discrimination beyond the scope of just being American...

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Race, ethnicity & religion

“Political correctness” is not a concept that translates well.  Americans fixate on the proper way to make statements, whether discussing race, religion, or a friend’s newly-gained weight; many other cultures hardly consider this at all.  You therefore may be surprised to receive questions that you think completely improper, or encounter comments that you think completely rude.  These situations are often a result of regional linguistics or insensitivity, not outright cruelty.  Students’ race and ethnicity can be an easy target for curiosity, because skin, hair, and eye coloring are much more readily observed upon first encounter than religious beliefs or sexual orientation.  Many cultures will maintain established prejudices amongst different races; just as our country has its own volatile, complex history of racial relations, each country carries its own unique and deep-rooted story of conflict, marginalization, and competition among their ethnic groups.  Also be mindful that some locals will be fascinated by (or fearful of) your race or ethnicity simply because they do not have regular contact with people of such physical types in their country.  Consider the disparities in globalization: many Ecuadorians can count on one hand the number of individuals of Asian descent they have met in their life.  Not everyone has experienced the same cultural melting pot that we take for granted in the U.S.  Depending on the conflicts and histories of the host country, certain religions can also be the target of prejudice and intolerance,.  Most students do not encounter any major problems based on their religious affiliation, but if you travel to a place where you know people of your same beliefs have been persecuted, be very cautious about showing any outward marks that signify your religion.  Your risk will correspond with the level of religious participation you outwardly display.  Use our general regional resources to study your particular environment, or explore these helpful sites: “Voicing Concern about Discrimination Abroad” (SAFETI Online Newsletter); Diversity Issues in Study Abroad (Brown University; also accounts of gender & sexual orientation).

“Did you receive attention because of your ethnicity, your dress, your behavior?  Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. And yes. If you’re white, black, or Latino—prepared to be stared at. That’s pretty much never going to change, wherever you travel in China.” -ND Student

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Students with disabilities

 Traveling abroad presents two key difficulties for students with disabilities.  First, just as other unique individuals and groups abroad, they may confront problems and prejudices in their interactions with others.  They may be stared at and treated differently, spoken to deprecatingly and not assisted.  Second, students with disabilities may also meet with substantial impediments to their capacity for living abroad.  Most countries do not uphold the same level of accessibility as the United States; ramps, Braille signs, elevators, and other aides may be scarce, or even non-existent in cases of rural areas or poorer countries.  Or, for that matter, in wealthy countries with very old architecture that wasn’t designed to accommodate wheelchair access.  Accommodations for students with learning disabilities or special psychological needs will vary widely. If you are an ND student with a disability and would like to study or serve abroad, speak with the advisor of your intended international program to see if the site can accommodate your needs.  For more information on options for navigating an abroad program, contact Disability Services (574 631 7157) at the Sara Bea Learning Center.

Also explore these online resources built to enable individuals and students with disabilities around the world: Mobility International USA, an organization dedicated to ensuring rights worldwide;

Access Abroad (University of Minnesota), for student experiences and questions to consider.

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Issues of sexual orientation

Outlooks on sexual orientation and tolerance of homosexual relationships vary extensively; some countries will be more relaxed with GLBT communities than the U.S., and others will be much more restrictive.  For GLBT students, the best advice is to study cultural attitudes and customs, and then study your own possible responses as well.  Get to know where your host country lies on the tolerance spectrum.  Learn the laws first.  Some countries treat homosexual orientation as a crime, and anti-discrimination laws vary, too.  (Try Amnesty International’s world map of GLBT legal status.)  Then study local gender relations and customs.  Try not to rely solely on observation.  Gender identities and interactions are culturally-based, so nonsexual interpersonal expressions could be misinterpreted and lead to confused impressions of appropriate behavior.  Imagine India for example: homosexuality is illegal there, but it is also common for male friends to walk hand-in-hand. Also study yourself: think of issues you may face, and how you will cope with them.  Does your GLBT identity conflict with your host country’s traditions or religious beliefs?  Will you feel like you sacrifice a piece of your identity by conforming to cultural expectations?  What will this mean for your abroad experience?  How will you learn to face such challenges without your support network from home? It is also possible that your host country will be much more tolerant of GLBT lifestyles than the U.S., how might that affect your self-identification?  Final suggestion for all students: be sensitive to the possibility that fellow abroad students may be undergoing difficult sexual questioning.  Going abroad is an opportunity for students to challenge and re-establish their identities more than ever; it is not unheard of for sexual orientation to be a part of this personal exploration.

“I've found that, in Japan at least, although there is some misunderstanding over non-heterosexual identities, there is none of the animosity you might see in America. So in some ways, I feel a little safer in Japan.  Here, people consider it a hobby, something people indulge in, like tennis. No joke. They recognize that people enter into homosexual relationships, but officially heterosexuality is the only sexuality that is considered a legitimate feature of human psychology.... If someone is abroad in an area where the status of LGBTQ persons isn’t clear, and they want to be open about it, I would say feel out the situation first.  Also, don’t assume that because the LGBTQ community in a country isn’t vocal, they don’t exist.” -ND Student

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For more information on GLBT issues in travel abroad, try these excellent resources:

NAFSA’s Rainbow Special Interest Group: Student Resources;

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

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