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Heritage Seekers

Student Experiences Abroad: Heritage Seekers

Students who are seeking international experiences as a way to explore their own roots are considered heritage seekers. Because you’ll be traveling to a culture that you feel connected to, you’ll be able to share insight as well as gain a new perspective on a country/countries that you’ve only spoken or thought about. Your experience with a certain culture gives you a unique perspective and can serve as an advantage in your immersion experience.

“During my time in Berlin, I grew closer to my own culture, and met fellow Belarusians and Ukrainians in the streets. The Plattenbau architecture reminded me of my own heimat, the city of Minsk, where the rest of my family resides. Studying abroad, though it dragged me further away from campus, actually brought me closer to home.”

Valerija Malashevich
College of Literature, Science and the Arts

“Growing up being adopted from China, I always felt displaced and out of place and always wondered what it was like in Eastern Countries where I was originally born. Coming to Korea, it was both odd in its unfamiliarity and comforting to be around people who looked like me and not be the minority. And at EWHA especially, an all-women's university, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and admiration for all the strong, talented, and amazing Asian women whose footsteps I was following in.”

Anna Poorman, South Korea

"I decided to study abroad in Korea and it was the best decision of my life. I felt so welcomed and honored to visit and study in my homeland. I was able to see my family and meet many new friends in the university itself. Many Seoul National University students were in awe of the fact that I was bilingual and embraced both parts of my identity into one. I did not feel out of place but I felt accepted and celebrated."


"Growing up as an Asian American, I have always struggled with connecting with my cultural identity. However, this trip offered me the chance to explore that side of my identity. At first, I was too embarrassed to admit how little Chinese literacy I had, but I eventually decided to embrace the short amount of time I had in China to improve and learn from others. It was humbling and enlightening to see how different doors opened when I accepted my own weaknesses and became willing to grow from them. "


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Planning Your Experience Abroad

Use this page to explore considerations, opportunities, and challenges related to traveling abroad as a heritage seeker, but make sure you continue to research prior to your departure.

As you consider and prepare for an international experience, use the questions here as a guide. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and you may relate to multiple identities. You are encouraged to discuss these topics in person with an education abroad advisor in your school or college.

How will you be perceived in your home country?

No matter where you travel, you should keep in mind that culture is not a uniform concept. Every culture varies and each one comes with its own set of cultural norms that can be very different to what you are familiar with in the United States. Depending on your expectations, you may or may not feel accepted or connected to your host country. In reality, you aren’t there to manage/change other people’s behavior toward you but you can be in control of how you respond to their behavior, which could cause people from your host country to think either negatively or positively toward you.

Will there be other heritage students in your program?

No matter where you travel, you should keep in mind that culture is not a uniform concept. Every culture varies and each one comes with its own set of cultural norms that can be very different from what you are familiar with in the United States. Depending on your expectations, you may or may not feel accepted or connected to your host country. In reality, you aren’t there to manage/change other people’s behavior toward you but you can be in control of how you respond to their behavior, which could cause people from your host country to think either negatively or positively toward you.

How will you handle cultural differences and attitudes?

Because you’re not in the United States, you may want to be mindful when it comes to reacting to locals. You should be intentional and remain non-judgmental, curious, and open to communication in order to learn more. Remember, you are there to learn and observe, and sometimes that means learning about customs that differ from your own way of life. On the other hand, staying true to yourself and your values is crucial. Your main concern should be your safety, so if you feel safe in your environment, you may choose to keep the communication open by asking questions to learn more or perhaps encouraging a discussion to determine whether their intentions are good or bad. In some cases, locals from various countries tend to be more vocal and direct as a way of trying to understand why visitors are different from them.

Will you find acceptance in your home country?

Keep in mind that regardless of your background, there may be differences that people from your host country might recognize right away. Your biggest ally will be to keep an open mind. You’re there to foster an intercultural experience, which means you’re there to gain insight and perspective into a culture that is outside of your own. Showcasing curiosity above anything else may get you more acceptance from your host community and you may even find that this can enhance your experience even more.

Most heritage seekers are invested emotionally and intellectually in their host country/homeland but may neglect to consider the negative impacts of their perceived familiarity with the culture. Some of the common challenges heritage seekers face include feeling the pressure to be “experts” of that culture, speaking the language like a native, and fitting in visually. Additionally, your host culture/ homeland may have higher expectations of you compared to other visitors. It is important to keep in mind that you are there to learn and observe the living culture that you have most likely learned through another lens (i.e., parents, grandparents, extended family, etc.).

 

Available resources

Your position as a heritage seeker can allow you to gain insight into your host country/ homeland and redefine your identities and how you can implement these identities back in the U.S. Your success is dependent upon how open you are to new discoveries in your host country/homeland culture, so set yourself up for success abroad by taking ownership of your experience and planning as much as you can before you depart. Research your host country/homeland, connect with on-campus resources, and plan how you will stay in touch with your support system while away from home.

Heritage Seeker Travel to a Familiar County

As a student who is seeking to connect with your heritage, you need to be intentional when choosing a program (i.e., Will this program satisfy major/minor requirements? Will it be faculty-led? Will it be a direct exchange where you can take courses at a local university? Or will you build your own program?)

There are so many options and once you have found a program that will help you foster a meaningful heritage-seeking experience, you will need to set realistic expectations for your experience. This begins with uncovering your expectations and seeking resources to validate those expectations. Like any other identity, heritage seekers need to do their research. Though you may have a strong connection to your host country, you are not a local and therefore, you must do your homework on the do’s & don’ts for your destination.

Other Considerations

Preconceived Notions

  • You may have familiarity with the culture, but keep in mind that you are not expected to speak the language, look the part, or know the history. On the other hand, heritage seekers may be coming into this experience with their own preconceived notions. While you may be familiar with a particular culture, thinking you are the expert may also prevent you from fully immersing yourself in your host country/homeland and breaking down any misconceptions you may have.

Challenges of Holding a Multi-Cultural Identity

  • While an international experience as a heritage seeker can help deepen an understanding of your identities, you should also consider some challenges that your multicultural identity may present in your host country/ homeland. Some heritage seekers return from programs feeling more connected to their ancestral land and culture, while others return feeling more associated and appreciative of their American roots (Diversity Abroad).

Shifts in Cultural Context

  • Perceptions of your racial or ethnic identity can vary across contexts, which may lead to assumptions about your heritage, nationality, language ability, and more. Consider how you will feel if:
  • You are traveling from one country to another while abroad and suddenly shift from being in the minority to the majority or vice versa.
  • Someone in your host country assumes you can speak or write a language based on your visible race or ethnic identity.
  • You are treated differently because you are attending a higher education institution in the United States.

Encounters Abroad

  • Note that even if you do your research ahead of time, traveling to a new place will likely be unfamiliar to you. You may also be unfamiliar with people in your host country and therefore encounter stereotypes, curiosity, or unexpected questions about race and ethnicity. Take a proactive approach by:
  • Brainstorming how you will react if you are asked uncomfortable questions or treated in a way you aren’t used to. If you are traveling in a group, rely on group members for support or a trusted local contact to debrief with.
  • Taking time for yourself. Practicing self-care is essential while abroad, so do what you need to do to de-stress in a safe and healthy way.
  • Talking to an advisor or student who has traveled to your host country before. You are likely not the first person to encounter this experience, so use your networks for support as much as possible.