Exploring U-M’s Opportunities Around the World


Heritage Seekers Abroad

Student Experiences Abroad

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.

    1. "I am Korean-American, born in America. I had always struggled with both sides of my identity, being that I was born in NY but also Korean. I felt too Asian for America, but not Korean enough for Korea. I did not know how to combine both sides into one cohesive identity. Slowly as I grew older, I realized that I ignored a lot of my Korean heritage because I felt embarrassed by it. When I was an up-and-coming senior in high school, I started to become a fan of a K-pop (Korean pop) group BTS. As I listened to their music, I started to have pride for my ethnicity: its language, its people, its food, its culture. I saw what I had been missing out on and how I had been hiding parts of my identity. So, I decided to take Korean as a language in college. My communication skills were pretty good, but my vocabulary and writing were subpar at best. Then 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."

    2. "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. "

    3. "While abroad I also discovered more of my interests and decided to minor in digital studies! Deciding a minor has been racking my brain over the last year and I am so happy to have finally settled on something I am truly interested in. While I was abroad I was also able to visit Scotland, where so much of my family history is rooted. I flew up for the weekend, met my family, and stayed in the same home my great-gran, gran and mother stayed in. I loved every second of this experience and I am eternally grateful I was able to learn all about my family history first hand. I will forever remember this trip, my growth, and all my amazing experiences I had."

    4. "Throughout my life, I sometimes felt like I was on this bridge trying to decide where I belong — Vietnam or the United States. Nonetheless, coming from a Vietnamese background, there was always an underlying connection that I wanted to continue building on. Traveling to Vietnam by myself was exciting, but also daunting. I did not have my parents to guide me and show me everything, but I was not completely lost either because I was culturally prepared especially with the food and language. I knew the basics and was able to get around and communicate with the local residents. However, I still felt a little social pressure. Despite this pressure, I genuinely enjoyed my experience. It was an enlightening time when I not only advanced academically, but also grew on a personal level. I got to deepen my understanding of the culture and different societal issues that I didn't necessarily know prior. After the trip, I felt even more connected to Vietnam. Now, instead of trying to choose one ‘home,’ I have two places to call ‘my home.’ There were times in my life when I tried to choose one identity, but why not take the best assets of both cultures and just be ME — a proud Vietnamese-American."

    5. "The last time I went to Vietnam was when I was two years old. Two. As far as I can tell, I didn’t exist before the age of five or so, since that’s how old I am in my earliest memory. I still can’t believe that after 17 years, I’m journeying back to Vietnam. This trip is more than a study abroad trip. Now that I get the opportunity to be fully immersed in Vietnamese food, people, and culture, I hope to develop my Vietnamese identity. Although I value being American, this is the time for me to push that aside and focus on my other half. Not only that, on a more personal level, this is a trip for me to meet the side of the family I’ve never known and live the culture my mother left behind. There’s a whole other world outside the US, and I can’t wait to experience it! See you soon, Vietnam."

    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.

    How can I start preparing for my experience as a heritage seeker?

    As you consider and prepare for an international experience, use the following questions 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 should I react if I find something to be offensive?
      • 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.
    • How will I be perceived in my 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 my 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.

    What resources are available to me as a heritage seeker?

    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.

    Take a deeper dive into issues of race and ethnicity in international travel by exploring the following resources:

    Download the Heritage Seekers Abroad flyer for additional questions and considerations for traveling abroad. Bring this resource with you when meeting with an academic advisor, education abroad advisor, or other U-M office.

    What expectations should I have as a heritage seeker traveling to a familiar country?

    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.

    Will I be accepted in my host 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.).

    Am I used to being part of the minority at home? How will it be to be a part of the majority abroad?

    This is important to consider before you travel, as identity shifts can be very disorienting. Remember that when you go abroad, you are entering a different form of cultural context where differences in opinions may vary. For many visitors, host countries are quick to point out your differences rather than similarities, which may allow you to see other identities come forward, such as being an American. This could create a disconnect with your familiar culture and possibly even lead you to question your identity. Nonetheless, this is a growing experience for you, and how you choose to handle these encounters will determine whether you’ll be walking away with a positive or negative experience. You may feel confused or isolated at times, but challenge yourself to understand these differences and remember that there is the power to holding multiple identities.

    What else should I consider while I plan for my experience abroad as a heritage seeker?

    • 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.

    • 2,775

      U-M is the No. 4 all-time producer of Peace Corps volunteers since the program was established in 1961

    • 115

      U-M hosted students from 115 countries in Fall 2020