"Over the course of two summers I traveled to Peru and Trinidad and Tobago. I found traveling abroad as a student of color was an advantage. Locals approached me with more comfort, and patients at clinics in both countries were more comfortable working with me because I had skin more similar to theirs. So don't be afraid to travel and get out there no matter what your skin tone is!"
"Going into this experience, I was very apprehensive about how I would be treated in a country where African-American people are rarely seen. However, after spending six amazing weeks in Spain, I can say that it is a country that is very welcoming and open to all people. At no point did I ever feel isolated or mistreated because of my race, which allowed me to have a more authentic and intimate connection to Spanish culture and its people."
"As a Black woman abroad, I often find myself in situations where there is no one else like me. In these moments, attention is often called to my hair or skin. Usually these reactions are positive and I have realized that locals are learning from me while I am also learning from them."
"Travel is an education on self-reliance and friendship."
"A full semester of self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-love through experiencing new people, unique places, and mouth-watering food."
Researching the social, political, and cultural context of how different racial and ethnic identities may be interpreted abroad can play an important role in where you choose to travel. Attitudes and perceptions around race, ethnicity, and national identity vary widely around the world and it’s key that you have an understanding of how you may be perceived and/or treated in your host country due to your identities. Use this page to explore how your race and ethnicity can present opportunities, challenges, and unexpected interactions while traveling abroad.
Did You Know?
- 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 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.
- 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 to 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.
Time to Reflect:
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. The Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) can also provide guidance and resources as you prepare for your experience.
- Consider the cultural attitudes of your host country
- How does my host country perceive and treat individuals of my racial/ethnic identity?
- How is race/ethnicity understood in my host country?
- Research the history and social climate of your host country
- What is the historical context around race/ethnicity in the country I am interested in visiting? How might this affect my interactions there and the way people perceive me?
- Are there local tensions in my host country around my social identity groups that might influence my experience abroad?
- Examine travel logistics
- What is my citizenship status? What effect will this have on my ability to travel?
- Consider how you will manage potential shifts in perception
- In the U.S., you may be identified first by your race. When you’re abroad, it is possible that you may be identified first as an American.
- How will I prepare for this possible shift in the way others perceive my identity?
- Will I be in a country where I will be perceived to be in the majority? Or the minority? How will these experiences differ from being in the U.S.?
- Understand your own expectations as a Heritage Seeker. Heritage Seekers are individuals who travel to countries where they have ancestral connections.
- What am I looking to get out of this experience? What views does the host culture have of heritage seekers?
- What are my expectations for how I will be received by members of my host culture? What will I do if their reaction doesn’t meet my expectations?
Take a deeper dive into issues of race and ethnicity in international travel by exploring the following resources:
Download the Race & Ethnicity 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 UM office.
U-M hosted students from 141 countries last year.
U-M’s International Institute houses 17 centers and programs focused on world regions and global themes