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Resources for Identity and Culture

The Global Education Office is dedicated to supporting all Vanderbilt students in the opportunity to study abroad. GEO strives to be inclusive and student-centered while helping students prepare for and engage in a meaningful study abroad experience. The following resources are offered as a starting place, and GEO staff advisors, the Global Safety and Security team, and Study Abroad Alumni are also available to address specific questions or concerns.  

Cultural Adjustment and Identity
Race and Ethnicity
Heritage Seekers
LGBTQI Students
Transgender and Non-Binary Students
Gender
Religion
Disabilities, Mental Health and Special Needs
First Generation College Students
First-Time Traveler
International Students
Athletes
STEM Majors
Pre-Med Students

Cultural Adjustment and Identity

Living in a new culture often means confronting new norms; some might seem trivial, others more significant.  Regardless of how you self-identify, you may quickly realize in an international context, your nationality becomes a pronounced aspect of your perceived identity and how natives of your host country relate to you. Being in an intercultural context is a great opportunity to explore your own as well as others' characteristic ways of making meaning of the world. 

The greatest learning often takes place when we are slightly uncomfortable. It's also key to balance the challenge and support. Keep in mind that everyone's comfort zone looks differently, and as you challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone, don't forget to seek support whenever necessary. Before you go, it helps to learn as much as you can about your host culture in terms of social etiquette, food, customs and tradition, language, religion, etc.; while abroad, stay open-minded and curious, and lean in to the intercultural experience to gain transferable skills. Pay attention to the critical incidents that constitute a surprise, a misunderstanding, cultural gaffe, or a social faux pas, and treat these incongruences as learning opportunities about your host culture and yourself. 

Here are some things to consider:

  • Assume the best about people's intentions to avoid reinforcing pre-existing biases and prejudices.
  • Based on how your home country is represented in the local media, you may be asked to comment on the policies, politics, and pop culture of your home country. Do some homework. 
  • Be aware of the stereotypes related to your nationality and ethnicity. Confronting stereotypes may sometimes be frustrating, and it may also spur interesting conversations. 
  • Being a polite and respectful guest in your host country goes a long way. 
  • Most interest you receive will probably be friendly, even if frankly or passionately expressed. But do prepare yourself to encounter actual hostility as well, and to consider how you might handle it.
  • When you think you know enough to pass as a local might be when you are the most vulnerable for crimes of opportunity. It never hurts to stay vigilant
  • If you are from a developed country and traveling to a developing country, be cognizant of the perceived/actual status or privilege associated with your nationality.
  • Being foreign, different, or simply away from home can be taxing. Make sure to exercise your resilience skills: practice self-care, have a support network, eat comfort food, talk to someone from your home country, or seek out professional counseling.

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Race and Ethnicity

Social discourse surrounding race and ethnicity is culturally mediated and historically bound; it will instead be based on your host country's particular demographics and unique history. In a global context, the history of colonialism matter as well, and may shift your power positioning. Plus, you may become part of a racial or ethnic majority/minority for the first time in your life while abroad. These factors will impact how you experience your own race and ethnicity while abroad. 

These new vantage points on self and identity can be exciting, but they can also be difficult. People may consistently misidentify you based on physical appearance, for example. Or you may be surprised at how freely people comment on your appearance. If you are a racial or ethnic minority in your host culture, you may find that you are looked at more often, or that people may want to touch your hair or skin. It’s also possible that your physical appearance and racial or ethnic identity will be ignored, and instead your nationality or gender will be a focus. Some of these encounters can be attributed to a sense of curiosity or unexamined bias; however, you may also experience overt racism. 

Students of European descent should be cognizant about how white privilege shapes their experience abroad. Given the complexity of colonial history, students should be particularly mindful of 'white savior' complex and recognize the role race-based privilege may play in the local context.

For all of these reasons, it will be helpful to prepare yourself in advance for the attitudes on race and ethnicity in your host country. Your experience abroad may spur tremendous growth and identity development, and GEO encourages reflection and processing during and post-experience by staying engaged with offices such as SCSJI and BCC for continuous identity exploration. 

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Heritage Seekers

Study abroad presents many different opportunities for students to explore their identities, including their ancestry and cultural heritage. You may choose to study abroad in a particular location to connect with your family and personal history, or to gain insights into your racial or religious ancestry even if there isn't direct familial ties to that location. 

Studying abroad as a heritage seeker can be a rewarding and complex journey. Heritage-seeking students should be aware that people in your abroad location may not see your heritage as the most important thing about you. If you are from the U.S., you may find that people identify you as an American first. You may find it more challenging than you expect to feel a part of the local community.

As such, there are often expected and unexpected emotions: surprises, belonging, confusion, fulfillment. Instead of a steady sense of "being at home," the actual experience itself may present a spectrum of highs and lows, and may sometimes leave you with more questions than answers. Yet through embracing this process, heritage-seeking students often report a renewed sense of self, and more in-depth understanding of their own identities. 

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LGBTQI Students

Laws and customs regarding LGBTQI communities vary in every country of the world, and attitudes and beliefs within each country will also differ significantly from person to person, just like in the U.S. It is important to research local customs and laws before studying abroad.

In general, LGBTQI communities are more prominent in larger cities where tradition is less strong and demographics more varied. It’s important to keep in mind that there may always be individual exceptions, rooted in local social/cultural norms or religious practices. Even in locations where LGBTQI identities and practices are legal, cultural norms may discourage coming out, discussing sexuality/gender identity, or showing affection publicly. Some students find it is necessary to select a more affirming site or hide their sexuality/gender identity for safety reasons.

Here are a few points to consider and resources to use to plan for a safe, enriching, and positive time abroad:

  • Do some research in advance and narrow down your study abroad options based on personal interests and needs. Consider safety, your needs for an in-country LGBTQI community, how host-country gender norms and expectations might impact how you express yourself, etc.
  • Be honest with your program about your concerns so that you can receive the support you need. Ask about LGBTQI-friendly housing options, particularly if you opt for a homestay. You can also stipulate that your program keep your request confidential, including from the host family.
  • Before choosing to come out while abroad, please make sure that your safety and well-being are prioritized.
  • The discourse surrounding sexuality/gender identity may be very different in other parts of the world. You might encounter questions or terminologies you are not used to. If you feel safe, this could be an opportunity for a conversation and mutual learning.
  • You might wish to seek out LGBTQI-friendly spaces in your study abroad destination. Keep in mind that the local LGBTQI community will likely be quite different from that in your home country. Coming to know and understand this new culture will likely be exciting and rewarding, but like any process of cultural adaptation, it may also be trying. Learn as much as you can in advance, but also adopt the attitude that difficulties are challenges to overcome rather than obstacles in your way.

Resources:

  • Equaldex, LGBT rights in the world database
  • International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) provides a country-by-country analysis of attitudes and laws regarding LGBTQ people
  • ILGA-Europe, the website of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s European chapter, provides multiple resources, including a Guide to Europe
  • LGBTI Travel Information, State Department resources for LGBT travelers
  • Rainbow SIG, an organization of study abroad professionals with LGBTQI study abroad resources
  • Utopia, an online guide to Asia-Pacific gay and lesbian resources, including legal and cultural information as well as links to country-specific resources.
  • If you have a smart phone and are traveling within the U.S. or Europe, you can download the REFUGE Restroom app to help you locate gender inclusive restrooms.
Transgender and Non-Binary Students

Trans and non-binary students are valued members of the Vanderbilt community. Abroad, attitudes regarding transgender students may not be the same. Cultures may not support or value trans or non-binary identities and in some countries transgender people may face criminal sanctions simply for who they are. Before you travel abroad, learn more about the laws, customs, and attitudes of the country in which you will be studying.

You may encounter difficulties if your documents and IDs do not match your legal name and gender. We recognize this process can be anxiety-inducing and stressful for trans people; however, due to the legal system of the United States, the name, gender, and date of birth on your flight ticket must match the government-issued photo ID (i.e. passport) you provide when passing through security. Perceived differences between documents and gender presentation may cause delays and/or additional screenings by travel agency staff.

If your US passport does not reflect your current gender, you can obtain a new ten-year passport with your updated gender but you must provide a letter from your physician documenting “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” As another option, the State Department will issue a limited, two-year passport with an updated gender based on a physician’s letter stating that the applicant “is in the process of gender transition.” We believe there is no reason for a transgender person to apply for the limited passport. However, if your physician will not state that you have had appropriate treatment, this option is open to you.

If your passport does not match your gender/has not been updated to reflect your gender, you must apply in person at any passport acceptance facility. If you are applying for a change of name, you may be eligible to apply by mail. Consult details provided by the National Center for Transgender Equality. If you are not a US citizen, consult the embassy or consulate of your home country for requirements.

When traveling, be aware that security screening may involve whole-body scanners (Advanced Imaging Technology) or a pat-down. If you opt out of the imaging scan, or if the machine detects something “unusual” (such as binding garments, prosthetics, or body parts the attendant did not assume you to have), you will be required to go through a pat-down. The officer working will assign an officer they assume matches your gender to perform the pat-down. Travelers may ask for a private screening at any time, and you may bring a travel companion in with you. You should never be required to lift or remove an article of clothing to reveal your body part(s) or a prosthetic item. If you use a prosthetic item, you are not required to remove it.

If you are carrying any medically prescribed items with you, including but not limited to hormones, bring documentation from your physician. Consider talking with your physician about how to access medical treatment and prescriptions abroad.

Be aware that traveling within your host country or crossing borders while abroad may also require documentation and security screenings.

When planning for your trip, consider housing options that fit your comfort and safety levels. Single rooms might be best for personal freedom, but they may not be available or may cost more. It may be wise to talk to your study abroad program to seek trans-friendly roommates or host families.

After considering potential safety issues, determine the name and gender pronouns you would like instructors and peers abroad to use while addressing you. You may want to ask your study abroad program about the availability of gender inclusive restrooms.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact GEO and we will be happy to help you work through them.

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Gender

Expectations surrounding gender roles vary from country to country, and even within countries. Because so much of our communication with others is interpreted in terms of gender, it is helpful to learn about gender roles in your host culture. One of the best things about studying abroad is making new friends, and you will want to avoid undue complications due to misunderstanding or miscommunication. You may want to consider:

  • Americans are accustomed to having platonic friendships with the opposite sex. How does your host culture view opposite-gender friendships?
  • If you are considering being sexually active abroad, research safe sex and birth control practices as well as attitudes toward sex outside marriage.
  • What constitutes sexual harassment under local law or understanding?
  • How do locals dress on the street? Could your manner of dress stand out and thus bring you unwanted attention? Are there different rules for people who look like foreigners vs. those who appear to be local?

While men studying abroad will certainly see cultural differences in their ascribed roles, it is women who will usually need to adapt most to local norms and values. North American women should be aware that they may face special sets of attitudes and assumptions. Here are some considerations for female travelers:

  • In some countries (such as Italy, Morocco, and Latin countries), catcalls or other forms of harassment of women might be common. Is this sort of thing likely in your host country? How will you deal with it if so?
  • Are there stereotypes about North American women in particular?
  • Be cognizant of how seemingly typical U.S. behaviors could be construed in more conservative or religious cultures, such as smiling or greeting opposite-sex strangers, looking directly at others, or going out at night without a companion of the opposite sex.

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Religion

Religion is a prominent feature of cultures around the world. During your time abroad, you will likely encounter fascinating and enriching ideas and practices. You may also experience things that challenge your notions of spiritual truth or even basic fairness. Regardless of your own religious beliefs, there are a few things you should consider:

  • If you plan to practice your own religion abroad, do some research first. You’ll want to know whether there are convenient houses of worship, of course. But depending on where you are going, there may be safety issues to consider as well.
  • In some countries, there may be little commitment to religious pluralism. The state may sanction a religion. Or laws may restrict religious speech, particularly as it relates to political activism.
  • Even if the society is generally an open one, be aware that safety concerns may still exist. Just as in the US, wearing symbols of some religions or frequenting houses of worship may make you a target for passionate violence from other groups.
  • Mixed gender housing is the norm at many universities across the world. This can mean mixed gender floors in dorms and mixed gender bathrooms. If this presents concerns for you, reach out to your GEO advisor.
  • Whatever your personal beliefs and circumstances, remember that your primary purpose is studying abroad. Consider your experiences an opportunity to understand the historical and social dimensions of religion in your host country. Be open-minded, save critical impulses for later, and open your own beliefs and practices to the same degree of scrutiny. If you approach your time in your host country as a time to learn about others’ beliefs and attitudes, you can avoid many opportunities for conflict.

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Disabilities, Mental Health and Special Needs

Students with disabilities and special needs, including mental health needs, can and do study abroad. It is important to keep in mind that the accommodations and services provided in the U.S. and at Vanderbilt may be different overseas. If you are registered with Vanderbilt’s Office of Student Access Services for an academic or physical accommodation on campus, you may request to have your accommodations letter sent to your study abroad program. Making your study abroad program aware of your accommodation needs will allow onsite staff to make arrangements where applicable, and help you determine whether your accommodation needs can be met at this particular location. Please note that the laws around disabilities and accommodations vary by country. Not all requests can be met completely.

It is worth noting that some of your needs may become more salient in an overseas setting. Think about prescriptions, physical therapy, counseling, dietary restrictions, and other things that keep you healthy while abroad. Talk with your current health provider about a continuing care plan for your time abroad. If possible, communicate with your program as well. They may be able to help you identify resources abroad. Please consider disclosing any physical or mental health conditions to your program. You can use the program’s medical history form, or send an email detailing your history and current care plan.

Resources:

  • Vanderbilt Global Safety and Security Team provides pre-departure guidance on setting up continued care, traveling with medication, utilizing Vanderbilt-issued insurance abroad, etc. 
  • Vanderbilt Student Access Services office, Vanderbilt’s office that supports students in need of physical and academic accommodations on campus and can assist in providing documentation to study abroad students needing accommodations during study abroad
  • Mobility International USA (MIUSA), US-based non-profit organization with a mission to advance disability rights globally. They provide a wealth of information on disclosure of disabilities, disability accommodations in an international context, negotiating accommodations internationally, things to think about in planning to take a service animal abroad, and more.
  • Traveling with Disabilities (CDC), The Centers for Disease Control provides a useful suite of information and external resources for travelers with disabilities as well as recommendations for proper planning.
  • Diversity Abroad, provides things for students with disabilities to consider when selecting their study abroad programs.
  • Taking Animals and Animal Products across International Borders (CDC), The US Center for Disease Control provides information on traveling abroad with a pet, requirements for entering the US with a pet, animal health certificates, and more.
  • Pets and International Travel (US State Department), The State Department’s Travel site provides a substantial amount of information on traveling internationally with a pet, including quarantine and import restrictions, US airline pet policies, EU and UK pet policies, certification requirements, and more.
First Generation College Students

As a first generation college student, study abroad may not have initially been a part of your plans for your time at Vanderbilt, but we're here to help you consider and plan for an experience abroad! Many first generation college students possess the skills and mindsets needed for an enriching study abroad experience due to prior experiences with navigating new and unfamiliar environments, seeking unique opportunities, and forging paths for themselves. Your decision to study abroad may come with questions related to finances and getting the support of your family and friends. GEO advisors can walk you through the process for studying abroad at Vanderbilt and address any concerns you might have. Even when you don't know what specific questions to ask, your GEO advisors can still provide guidance, and can connect you with peers to speak with about their experience abroad.
 
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First-Time Traveler

Preparing for your first trip abroad can be daunting. Your GEO advisors have created a checklist to help you kickstart the process and transition from feeling nervous to feeling excited about your study abroad experience! If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to your advisor.

Click here to view the checklist!

International Students

Congratulations! As an international student, you are already studying abroad! If you would like to study abroad again and explore countries outside of the U.S., GEO encourages you to do so. Depending on the nationality of your passport, you may find travel requirements for your destination(s) are different than for some of your peers. In addition to procuring appropriate travel documents for studying abroad, maintaining your U.S. immigration status for re-entry is also key. We have created a checklist to help guide you through this process. You are also required to complete this checklist as a part of your study abroad application through GEO.

Click here to view the checklist!

Athletes

Athletes should consult their coach or athletics advisor before considering study abroad. Your study abroad advisor can work with you to identify programs with accommodations you may need while abroad (training facilities, etc.). The table below shows your options for study abroad as a student athlete.

Key

Y = Yes; these are times that generally work for student-athletes
M = Maybe; these are times that are less than optimal, but might work after speaking with your coach
Blank = These are times that most student-athletes should not consider

Men’s Sports    
Fall SemesterSpring SemesterMaymesterSummer*
BaseballMM
BasketballYY
Cross CountryMYY
FootballMYM
GolfY
TennisY

Women’s Sports    
Fall SemesterSpring SemesterMaymesterSummer*
BasketballYY
BowlingYY
Cross CountryMYY
GolfY
LacrosseMMY
SoccerMYY
SwimmingYY
TennisY
Track & FieldY

*For many sports, summer suitability depends on the length and timing of the program. Consult with your Academic Advisor, Academic Counselor, Sport Administrator, Coach, and GEO Advisor when planning a study abroad experience.

STEM Majors

All majors can study abroad, with proper planning. Your GEO advisor is happy to meet with you to help determine which programs have the science or math courses you need. For engineers, GEO has a specific engineering advisor to help you begin this process. Engineers should visit the VUSE Study Abroad page prior to making an appointment.

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Pre-Med Students

With the right planning, Pre-Med students can and do study abroad. Pre-Med students should work with the Health Professional Advisory Office before choosing a study abroad semester and program. Some medical schools may prefer or require that required medical school prerequisite courses be taken in the United States. While studying abroad, you may have an opportunity to work in a clinic or volunteer in a medical capacity. Norms vary, but you should be prepared to decline if you are asked to participate in a role or task that an undergraduate student would not be permitted to take part in in a clinic or hospital setting in the U.S. Engaging in activities you are not qualified for at home may be viewed by medical schools as a serious breach of ethical judgment.

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