Heritage Seekers Off-Campus

Many students of varying ethnicities and/or national origins go abroad to learn more about their respective family histories.  This can be an incredible opportunity for students to learn about their ancestral homeland, acquire a stronger grasp on a family language or gain an understanding of what their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors endured and overcame.  Other students may return with a deeper understanding and appreciation of their U.S. American roots.  Every student will have a unique experience that will hopefully not only strengthen their academic experience, but will also teach them more about their identities on a global scale.     

While being of a specific ethnic and/or national origin may be very prominent to your identity in the United States, it may become secondary to your identity as a U.S. American citizen abroad.  The manner in which an ethnic community or a community of a specific national origin may operate in the context of living in the United States may be different than how that community operates in the context of a different country.  This is true for any heritage seeker, regardless of skin color, ethnic and/or national origin or language.  Go into your experience abroad with an open mind to learn from those around you.  Do not automatically assume you completely understand the culture or will be accepted as “one of their own” due to sharing a similar ethnic and/or national background or even language. 

In contrast, don’t assume you are going to be looked down on due to being from the United States.  Research how your host country or community has been impacted by U.S. politics and by immigration.  There are many influential factors that impact the way in which a person thinks of someone from a particular country.  Researching your host country and its relationship to the U.S. can help you prepare to be flexible for a variety of conversations you could encounter about your identity.   

Linguistically, try to adapt to the language of your host culture.  Be willing to change spelling or learn to use certain colloquial terms in order to assimilate yourself and show respect for the host culture.  Even if the language of your host location is your native language, a heritage language, or a second (or third) language for you, be willing to continue to learn how that language manifests itself within that specific country and context.  Learn what that language means to its speakers.  You might learn more about what that language means to you and gain a greater appreciation for linguistic diversity!

Ultimately, remember that your intersecting identities, including your identity as a U.S. American citizen, as well as an individual of a different ethnic and/or national origin, gender expression, sexual orientation, being a student, etc., may seem more or less prominent in your new culture over the identities you feel closest to in the United States.  Take this time to learn more about your identities and how they work together in a different cultural context.  Be prepared that this may mean you will have to wrestle with long-held beliefs about your identity.  Go into your experience abroad with flexibility and an open mind to understand identity and how it relates to one’s place on a global scale and not just in one’s home country.