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Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality Abroad

A young man stands atop a building roof waving the Egyptian flag with the skyline in the distance

T.J. Foley '21, Egypt

Racial and ethnic relations vary by culture. Before traveling abroad, research your destination to understand how your racial, ethnic, and national identities might be perceived in your host country and impact your experience.

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

Research Your Destination

Traveling abroad provides opportunities to learn about different ethnicities and nationalities and their cultural ideas, values, and behaviors. 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 as a person of color or a white person? A person of a particular ethnicity?
  • Are there any underlying 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 government?
  • What are the expectations around discussing topics like race, ethnicity, and nationality? Are they openly discussed or avoided?

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.

Consider Your Identities

Be prepared to think about your identity in new ways. For example, you may find yourself in a country where you’re part of a racial or ethnic minority or majority for the first time. Even if you share an ethnicity with the people in your host country, you might still encounter cultural differences based on the environments in which you grew up.

In the US, your race or ethnicity may be perceived as your dominant identity, but in another country, you may be identified first as an American (or your home country nationality). Individuals in your host country may also perceive your academic affiliation as a Harvard student, researcher, professor, or staff member as a primary identity.

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 identity that might be met with disapproval, intolerance, bias, or racism?
  • Are there certain topics I might wish to avoid in conversation? How will I respond if asked to speak in representation of my perceived identities?
  • Is the way I normally dress going to be received positively in most situations?
  • 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.

Individuals in your host country may not have previous exposure to your identity and may generalize from what they’ve seen or heard. In some countries, you may find people are less politically correct or more direct in their communication; they might ask questions or make comments about physical features, cultural heritage, or national origin, or stare, point, take photos, or seek to touch you.

Your Safety Comes First

You may find yourself in some uncomfortable situations. And you may experience racism or intolerance in different ways than in the US. If you experience racism or 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.