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Navigating Your Identities Abroad

A woman in a jean jacket stares into a multi-reflective mirror

Sandra Moon '22, United Kingdom

Before traveling abroad, research your destination to understand how your identities, attitudes, values, and outward appearance might be perceived in your host country and impact your experience.

Research Your Destination

Social and cultural norms vary greatly by country. Before traveling abroad, it’s helpful to research your destination to anticipate how different cultural and structural factors might influence how individuals treat you based on the identities you hold.

Gather as much basic information about your destination as you can, especially as it relates to social and cultural norms and attitudes, local laws and practices, and political and historical context.

Here are just some of the questions to explore:

  • What’s the culture like? What should I know about the region’s language, politics, religion, and economy? What are the major historical, political, or geographic events that helped shape its culture?
  • How are different identities treated? How can I expect to be viewed?
  • Are there any underlying or pervasive ethnic or political tensions I should be aware of? How do the locals feel about the US or my home country? About Harvard? How do they feel about their own government?

In addition to the resources on this page, take advantage of the resources within your social and academic communities on campus, including Harvard’s international centers, affinity groups, and peers who have traveled to your destination.

“Learn about the policies, culture, language, and customs of the places you are going. Even just a little preparation will save you a lot of headaches later on.”

– Harvard traveler

Evaluate Your Identities

Once you’ve gathered some basic information about your destination, consider the potential impacts on your experience based on the identities you hold—whether visible or not physically expressed.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • How do I typically express my identities?
  • Are there aspects of my identities that might be met with prejudice or intolerance?
  • Are there certain topics I might wish to avoid in conversation?
  • Is the way I normally dress going to be received positively in most situations?
  • Are there differences in how I should greet and communicate across genders and age groups?
  • Am I studying or researching a topic that might upset or anger people?
  • How will I react if I encounter discriminatory behavior?

Finding the balance between being true to yourself and adapting to the culture you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in can be challenging and a great lesson. You don’t have to avoid a location but being aware and informed can help you manage your safety, maximize your experience, and access resources.

Note: The identities and resources below are a starting point. You may hold one or more of these identities and need to consider their intersectionality and how that might impact your experience. Even if you don’t hold some of these identities, learning how they might be perceived in country can help you be an effective ally for your peers. There may be situations where you have privilege and can use it through your words and actions to support others and reduce their exposure to risk if you feel safe to do so.

Accessibility Abroad

Consider how different emotional, learning, mental, and physical disabilities or impairments are perceived in your host country, and understand the availability of services and accommodations and how to access them.

Accessibility Considerations Abroad

Gender Abroad

What are your host country’s cultural attitudes toward gender identity and expression? Since gender roles vary across cultures, you should check societal expectations against your own personal values.

Gender Considerations Abroad

LGBTQ+ Abroad

Will your host country’s laws, norms, and attitudes honor and support your identity as an LGBTQ+ person? You may find you can be more open about your identity in certain countries and less open in others.

LGBTQ+ Travel Guidance and Resources

Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality Abroad

You may find yourself in a country where you’re part of a racial or ethnic minority or majority for the first time. Consider how your host culture’s attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and national identities may impact your experience.

Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality Considerations Abroad

Religion and Spirituality Abroad

Whether you practice a religion or not, it’s important to understand the role religion may or may not play a role in the local context of your host country and to be respectful of different religious beliefs and customs.

Practicing Religion and Spirituality Abroad

More Identity Resources

Harvard Global Support Services does not endorse any of the external organizations or services; they are provided only to serve as aides.