Identities Abroad

Discrimination and harassment can happen during your off-campus experience, as it can at home. When it does occur, take the necessary steps to curb its negative effects.  First, research your legal rights while abroad, and find local organizations that might help you. You should also research how minority groups are treated in your country of study.  Look online, talk to your program or director, contact past program participants.  If a negative experience does occur, you should always assert yourself and remain confidant yet polite.  In non-threatening situations, address the comment or concern calmly. Invite discussion.  But if the situation turns violent, be sure to remove yourself from it.  Talk to your program director, your teachers, your host family, and your friends about any discrimination that you might experience. They can serve as a support network, help you understand the situation better, and get help if needed.


Cultural attitudes and appropriate behavior for young women varies from culture to culture. Some countries have well-defined gender roles in regards to the division of labor, family, the workplace, school, in public, etc. For example, if you are a woman, simple actions such as smiling, making eye contact, or wearing certain clothing can have profoundly different meanings in different cultures.  In many parts of the world, a woman does not go out alone, even during the day, and this may be misconstrued as an invitation for company or a sign of promiscuity. Observing how local women your age act and dress and trying to do likewise is very important.  You may still be harassed despite your efforts, in which case you must act with common sense and seek help.

Here are some examples of challenges women may encounter abroad:

  • Normal behavior for women in the US, such as smiling or making eye contact, may be interpreted differently in some host cultures
  • Unwanted attention is common in many cultures. Openly staring at women, suggestive or explicit comments on the street, catcalls and whistling, touching or grabbing women occur in many cultures.
  • The “easy” stereotype persists. American film, media, and advertising often portray U.S. women as easily available, leading local people to think this is universal in U.S. culture.


  • Interview a reliable local “older sister” woman about local norms for women and men
  • Follow the example of local women in terms of dress, behavior, and demeanor
  • Walk with purpose and avoid eye contact and smiling at strangers.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities are encouraged to disclose this as early as possible in order to best prepare for the experience abroad. They should consult the website of Mobility International USA, an organization that facilitates international study and exchange for persons with disabilities, as well as the OCS Director and the program provider. Some things may be inaccessible, but proper preparation can help. Also, attitudes towards persons with disabilities in your host country may be different than what you are used to at home. Students with disabilities can occasionally be the victims of prejudice and stereotyping while abroad. The disabled report being stared at, ignored, unassisted, and/ or talked down to more frequently abroad than they tend to be in the U.S. In many countries, there are no standards or requirements for providing access for the disabled. Wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces, Braille signs, and other aides may be non-existent in parts of the host country, especially rural areas. In addition to a lack of services provided to the physically disabled, there may also be a lack of services provided to those with a learning disability, those with a psychological or emotional need, or those who are mentally challenged. However, with adequate preparations and precautions, much of the world is accessible to students with disabilities.

LGBTQ Students

Studying abroad presents unique rewards and challenges for LBGTQ students. Because traveling to a new culture is often perceived as a liberating experience, you may decide to come out for the first time in the overseas setting. Alternatively, you may have a second coming out experience, but in a different cultural context. Or you may decide to limit your openness about your sexual orientation for any number of reasons while you are overseas, often including serious safety issues. Whatever your choice, here are some things to consider:

  • Before leaving, research cultural norms of friendship and dating for relationships between people of any sexual orientation
  • Check with your program for LGBTQ resources where you will be studying. The Rainbow Special Interest Group offers a bibliography regarding sexual orientation issues in countries outside the U.S.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In choosing your destination country and program, have you accounted for sexual orientation factors?
  • What support can you expect from the study abroad program provider?
  • What local LGBTQ organizations or support services exist for you to seek support?
  • How does the host culture handle different sexual identities and gender expressions?
  • What are the norms for dating and friendship among LGBTQ groups in the culture as compared to the U.S.?
  • What are the implications of being identified as LGBTQ for you and those you interact with?
  • If living with a host family, will you request one that is supportive of LGBTQ issues?
  • What safety or health issues will you need to consider in the new context?


Different cultures have different ideas and expectations regarding religion. Be respectful of others and learn as much as possible about the religious beliefs and practices in your host country. Research whether or not people of your faith meet and practice in the place where you are going.