Be aware, not afraid.
The goal is not to scare you into becoming a recluse abroad. Immerse yourself—that is why you travel to a strange and fascinating new country, after all. Simply be aware; observe all the interactions, individuals, and perceptions around you. Let preparation give you confidence, not fear of the unknown.
To understand how to observe your host culture, you first need to research the regional and country-specific contexts you will encounter. To further study gender-influenced challenges, try reading more online resources listed here.
If you do find yourself victimized abroad, don’t feel guilty for lack of personal preparation or awareness. You are never to blame. There is no instance in existence that warrants another person taking advantage of you.
Cross-cultural misunderstanding is no excuse, either.
If you have been victimized abroad, please get support right away. Contact the Victim’s Resource Person (574 631 7728) for a confidential, compassionate introduction to your options, and read on to learn more about transforming from victim to survivor.
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No advice will really help until you learn the gender complexities specific to your country. Talk with past participants, and ask international ND students for suggestions on visiting their country. There are great resources online, too:
Journeywoman: What Should I Wear, Where?
For reader-written recommendations on appropriate clothing abroad, listed by country.
Centre for Intercultural Learning: Country Insights
Canadian Foreign Affairs' extensive description of each country’s cultural distinctions, from “Display of Emotion” and “Relationship-building” to “In-country Activities”— and include both local and outsider perspectives.
More country-specific material that provides the basics of greetings, personal space, eye contact, gender roles...
Glimpse (National Geographic)
An online magazine of insightful and entertaining articles, blogs, and photographs about life abroad, and authored by students themselves. Peruse articles categorized by region, country, or cultural topic.
“Surprisingly, I saw more different expectations of men in my country, Italy, than I did of women. Italian young women on the whole seemed to be even more 'liberated' than American women, with little pressure to conform to traditional roles of marrying early and having a large family at the expense of a career. The larger difference with men was that it was perfectly acceptable to be one of the mammoni, which literally means ‘mamma's boys’—30-something guys with respectable careers who live at home and have their moms take care of them. From the handful of conversations I had on the subject, most people seemed pretty comfortable with this, although there were some who voiced concern that it was harmful for women to be so completely independent while men were so coddled—that neither gender was capable of the healthy sharing of oneself that a strong relationship requires.” -ND Student
For more helpful links to research regional diversity, skip on ahead to coping with culture.
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General gender abroad resources
Her Own Way: A Woman’s Guide to Safe and Successful Travel (Foreign Affairs & International Trade Canada) Likely the most comprehensive current online guide for female travelers. Topics include: culture shock, packing, general safety, accommodations, networking, dress, harassment, going out after dark, health, and backpacking.
Journeywoman: The Premier Travel Resource for Women
A well-known resource for women, collecting travelers’ first-hand accounts and advice covering a wide base of topics. Includes Hermail.net, an international directory of women willing to provide answers to female travelers’ questions.
“Treatment of Sexual Assault in College Students Studying Abroad” (SAFETI Online Newsletter) Thorough explanations of what victims endure before, during, and after assaults; methods to support healing; and common emotions throughout the process, for both survivors and supporters.
“Rewards for Women Traveling Solo” (Transitions Abroad: Women Travel Portal) Benefits for women: approachability and the ability to make quicker personal connections than male travelers.
“Women Studying Abroad: Preparation and Support are Important” (Transitions Abroad: Women Travel Portal)
The need to prepare before leaving, discuss emotions while abroad, and actively process experiences on return.
Rape and Sexual Assault Services (Notre Dame Student Affairs) What to do in case of assault, who to contact, info on the Victim’s Resource Person, and how to be a supportive friend.
“This may sound obvious, but paying attention is one of the most valuable things you can do to keep yourself safe abroad. Be aware of your surroundings and your gut feelings at any given time. During the day, sunglasses can be a lifesaver, because you'll be able to check out everything without making eye contact that can spark unwanted attention. By looking around, not only will you be more aware of what's going on and any potential dangers, but you'll also notice the great things happening around you too. One of the most fun parts of being abroad is the quirks you'll never be able to plan or pick out of a guide book. Keep your eyes open. The vast majority of the time, there's far more good to see than bad!” -ND Student
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If you were a victim
First things first: get to a place where you feel safe. Do you need medical help? Confide in a friend to help you re-establish your immediate security. You endured victimization alone; no one should have to face the aftermath alone.
Please know this was not your fault, and no one should blame or judge you for what you suffered. Some ND students hesitate to report what happened and get immediate help through the University because they fear reactions to their “sexual activity.” (These emotions of fear and shame are completely normal reactions, by the way.) But sexual assault is not an act of your sexuality; it is a perpetrator’s act of dominance. Notre Dame’s only concern is for your personal security. So please contact your ND international-program advisor, or the Victim’s Resource Person, Ava Preacher; they can help you get the assistance you need, and help cope with the added complications of seeking medical and emotional support abroad. Upon returning to campus, you can also seek confidential support through the University Counseling Center (574 631 7336) and Campus Ministry (574 631 7800).
Victims usually go through a hazy period of shock after the assault that may delay their reaction to seek help. They may be embarrassed that their emotions continue to disrupt daily living—it just happened once and it‘s over now, it was not as bad as some stories you hear, I’m fine now... right? There is no such thing as an encounter being “severe enough” to warrant seeking help.
Circumstances of victimization are irrelevant; the real measure of severity is your own reactions and emotions. You have been hurt, and that is all that matters. You may also react with other common feelings: fear, guilt, anger, shame, betrayal, lack of trust, loss of control. The SAFETI article, “Treatment of Sexual Assault in College Students Studying Abroad,” talks about the emotional rollercoaster of assault and recovery, and may give you a better idea of what you are feeling and why. Experiencing sexual assault is not just a static incident; it is a process that involves emerging out of the continued emotions of victimization by healing, falling backward, and healing again.
Please know that you are not alone, no matter how much your fears may tell you the opposite—your friends and family, your international programs advisors, and the Notre Dame community are here to support you, whenever and wherever you need it.
“When I went back to the village the next summer, I took comfort in having a “bodyguard”—I never went anywhere alone. While it may seem simple, I felt incredibly safe just having someone else with me, even in the same country, even in the same village, and on the same walk home from school. I know that college seems too old for the ‘buddy system,’ but I can honestly say that it made me feel the safest I have ever felt in a place where I experienced the greatest attack on my personal safety. Don’t be afraid to use it, or you’ll spend your time being afraid of your surroundings and you won’t enjoy the incredible experience ahead of you. Don’t dwell on fear, just live wisely.”
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If you are a friend
If a study-abroad companion has confided in you after an assault or traumatizing harassment, the first way you can help is to re-establish her/his sense of security. Try to remove your friend from anything that is a reminder of the incident. Also, help your friend reclaim control of her/his life. Fight the possible reaction to nurse your broken friend by making decisions, and instead give options whenever feasible: “Would you like to talk to the director now, or in a few hours?”; “Would you rather rest, or do you want me to stay with you?”; “Where would you feel safe tonight?”
When victims hesitate to tell their loved ones, their first fear is that reactions will be judgmental, or conversely that reactions will be indifferent to the profound impact this experience is effecting in the victim’s life. Individuals may feel like they are being victimized all over again if they sense that those they love and depend on cannot understand their trauma. As a caring friend, you can feel second-hand trauma and guilt for the incident, too; but do not vocalize any “if you had only...” thoughts. Victims will not need reinforcement for their own self-blame. Instead, the best reaction you can give is to immediately recommend professional counseling. Your gentle, repeated urgings to a reticent victim can chip away at the fear, embarrassment, and shame, and get your friend to find help on her/his own terms.
You will not understand what your friend is going through, but you do not need to; just say you want to try. That concern is almost all they need. Continually reaffirm that assault was not the victim’s fault, and that the individual is not alone in this recovery. Don’t be fooled by outward appearance; relaxed behavior does NOT mean your friend is unaffected or has miraculously “gotten over” the memory. She/he may be enduring shock, denial, or too much embarrassment to admit its continued importance. In reality, recovery takes months, or years—continue to ask how your friend is doing, long after you imagine you would need to. Your friend will appreciate it.
While you take care of your friend, be sure to take care of yourself, too. Do not underestimate the force that this experience can impact on your life as a supporter. If you find yourself emotionally exhausted, consider making use of Notre Dame’s UCC services yourself when you return to campus.
"I did technical research in the developing world for two summers and it wasn't until the second time I fully appreciated the subtle discriminatory and limiting male views on females. Abroad I worked with colleagues and professionals who were fair and open minded, but I also witnessed leaders of groups that were committed to education, health, and progress and still would doubt and discount my female colleagues' work and abilities. These men's lack of appreciation for female intelligence presented extra challenges that I was a bit oblivious to at first. Preventing dangerous situations where sexual harassment or assault may occur is important, but listening, encouraging, and doing whatever else that provides comfort and support for your colleagues to graciously and courageously persist in a culturally challenging environment can be invaluable, too." -ND Student
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Support at ND
You don’t need to endure any major shock to be distressed or confused by your time abroad. If you grew troubled by the objectification of harassment, came to internalize imbalanced gender roles, learned the hurt of cultural gender expectations in a personal relationship, or just want to know how to integrate this experience in your life, consider counseling when you return to Notre Dame. UCC counselors’ job is to be available for students. Individual sessions are only a few dollars, and group sessions have been established both for returnees from abroad and for sexual assault victims. A separate group may also be soon available for students victimized abroad. If you just need to de-stress, sign up for free use of the Inner Resources Room , which has an abundance of gadgets and supplements (think massage chair, soothing music, restorative breathing exercises) to help you unwind. Check UCC’s website for current services.
Another way to help make sense of your emotions and experiences is ministerial support; contact Campus Ministry, or try talking with your dorm’s hall staff or familiar in-hall priest. Campus Ministry offers students spiritual direction—which is NOT a counseling service, but could place your new questions about the world in a broader, holistic context.
If you find yourself overwhelmed not just by gender issues abroad but with the entire process of adjusting to life in a new culture, try also learning more about what you are feeling and why in coping with culture.
“You're going to have the most amazing time, with amazing memories you will cherish forever. But don't feel bad if you have a bad day. Not every day abroad will be perfect. No matter where you go, you can still get up on the wrong side of the bed. Don't take it to heart, it happens to all of us, and you will only remember the good times in the long run.” -ND Student
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