Main Content

Practicing Religion and Spirituality Abroad

A woman in a hijab looks out over the Florence skyline with the Duomo in the distance

Rahma Zarin '18, Italy

Whether you practice a religion or not, it’s important to understand the laws and norms around religious expression that may impact your experience and to be respectful of your destination’s religious beliefs and customs.

This article is part of a series on Navigating Your Identities Abroad.

Research Your Destination

Traveling abroad provides opportunities to learn about different religious and cultural ideas, values, and practices. Before you leave, take time to understand the role religions play in your host country as religious tolerance and freedom of religion vary. This might affect your ability to speak to others about your beliefs, wear religious attire or symbols, or participate in religious services.

Here are just some of the questions to explore:

  • What role do religions play in the social and political context? Is there separation between religion and government?
  • What are the laws regarding religion?
  • What religious holidays occur in my host country during my time there, and how will this affect my academic, research, or work plans?
  • At sacred spaces, what should I wear and how can I show respect to sacred objects or places?
  • Where can I go to practice my religion safely?
  • Is it appropriate to wear specific religious clothing or symbols?

Leverage Your Network and Resources

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. You can also research and seek out in-country support networks, including members of your faith community.

Consider Your Identities

Be prepared to think about your identities in new ways. For example, you may find yourself in a country where you’re part of a religious minority or majority for the first time, or you may not be familiar with the religion at all.

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 my cultural and religious backgrounds affect how I view and understand the religious context of my host country? How might the cultural and religious context of my host country affect how people there see me?
  • How can I show respect for diverse expressions of religion and participate in cultural events, even if I don't practice the religion of my hosts? Are there aspects of my religious identity that might be met with prejudice or intolerance?
  • Will I be able to observe and celebrate my religious holidays (if different)?
  • Is the way I normally dress going to be received positively in most situations?
  • Are there dietary restrictions (e.g., keeping Kosher, fasting) that I need to plan for?
  • How will I react if I encounter discriminatory behavior?

“I experienced Islamophobia during study abroad. . . [I]t was definitely challenging. . . I think my ignorance protected me at first because it took me weeks to even notice the staring and the exclusion. I found a lot of comfort in making friends of color across the program who had similar experiences. My advice would be to develop those friendships because there can be a lot of gaslighting by [people] who have a completely different experience.”

– Harvard traveler

Understand Differences

Acknowledge what you can do to adapt to the culture you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in while also not compromising your attitudes, beliefs, and values.

You may disagree with the religious beliefs, practices, and cultural expectations in your host country. And your religious beliefs and practices (or lack thereof) may be perceived differently in your host country or met with intolerance in different ways than you may have experienced in the US.

Your Safety Comes First

You may find yourself in some uncomfortable situations. If you experience religious intolerance while abroad and wish to report it, you can contact our team in GSS; learning about your experiences helps us provide you with resources and advise future travelers.

Trust your gut and distinguish between a person who is genuinely curious to learn and someone who has bad intentions. Remove yourself from uncomfortable and unsafe situations as quickly as possible. Your physical safety and mental wellbeing are your top priorities.

If you need medical, mental health, or security assistance while on a Harvard-related trip, contact International SOS, our 24/7 global emergency response program, at +1-617-998-0000 or through the Assistance App.

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