Navigating your Identities Abroad

UIC students sit on a step in front of a colorful mural in Salamanca.

When traveling abroad, it is important to reflect upon your personal values and identities in order to better anticipate areas where you and your host culture might be similar or different. In order to better appreciate and understand cultural differences, we first have to have a good understanding of our own culture and intersectionality.

Additionally, the Study Abroad Office recognizes that students with certain identities may have unique questions or concerns when it comes to studying abroad. We are committed to helping all students find a program that meets their goals while providing them with a rich and fulfilling personal experience. The Study Abroad Office strives to make sure that all our study abroad programs and affiliations are inclusive and safe for students regardless of their sexual orientation, ethnic/racial background, or other identities. Our program partners and our team’s goal is to support your needs before, during, and after study abroad. We invite you to explore the following pages we have prepared with information and resources for specific populations. We recognize that this information is not comprehensive to supporting students from diverse backgrounds; instead we hope it serves as a starting point to begin a dialogue with our staff and other mentors/advisors regarding navigating your unique identities in a new culture or country.

If you identify as a member of a diverse group not represented here, would like additional resources, or have specific questions or concerns, please let us know at sao@uic.edu so we can support you in your pursuit of study abroad.

Click each tab to learn about considerations and resources for a few different student populations.

As the first in your family to attend college you also have the exciting opportunity to be the first in your family to study abroad. This experience can be an incredible opportunity for you to continue developing the skills that have helped in your achievements so far, including independence, self-confidence, and leadership skills.

Since you are the first in your family to study abroad, you likely have many questions and the Study Abroad Office is here to help!  Here are a few questions we often hear from first-generation college students along with some advice. Don’t hesitate to reach out to our office, though, for any other questions you or your family have.

I’m interested in studying abroad but I don’t know how to discuss this opportunity with my family.

As you probably know, study abroad can afford you many benefits. Often times, family members who have not studied abroad may not understand how this is an important educational opportunity for you. Consider sharing some of these key points:

  • You remain a UIC student while abroad and earn credits that count towards your degree
  • Studying abroad can give you new insights into your field of study and ideas for future coursework or research you may like to pursue
  • Studying abroad has shown to be helpful in improving GPAs, retention, and in the development of transferrable skills such as independence, leadership, and cross-cultural communication
  • Studying abroad can help set you apart as a graduate and is something you can add to your resume or discuss in future graduate school applications or job interviews
  • Studying abroad with UIC means that you will have a full support system in place both as you prepare and while you are abroad

I’m worried that studying abroad is too expensive or will delay my graduation.

Often times, students think that studying abroad is more expensive than studying at UIC, and this isn’t the case. Check out our Affordability page which demonstrates how we have many programs that cost similar to, or in some cases, less, than the total cost of attending UIC. Additionally, UIC students can use their Financial Aid package to help offset study abroad expenses and we have numerous Scholarships that we can help you apply for.

Additionally, students sometimes think that studying abroad might delay their graduation. With over 200 programs, we have programs that offer coursework for most majors at UIC. We work with you and your academic advisor to ensure that the credit you earn while abroad can count towards progress on your degree plan. We have programs where you can fulfill major, elective, general education and other requirements, so there is no reason why studying abroad has to delay your graduation!

Resources:

Studying abroad as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community can be an exciting time for you to explore your identities in a new setting. Depending upon where you travel, you may find a more welcoming environment than what you are used to back home. LGBTQIA+ students also sometimes share that they felt empowered to be their authentic selves for the first time in their lives thanks to the greater sense of independence studying abroad can afford. However, certain locations around the world may be less favorable for LGBTQIA+ students due to cultural norms or laws. Below, we offer some considerations and resources for LGBTQIA+ travelers and invite you to speak with our advisors about any questions or concerns you may have. The UIC Study Abroad Office respects the sexual orientation and gender identity expression of all students and we are here to support your goal of studying abroad.

Questions to Consider:

  • Does your identity as an LGBTQIA+ individual conflict with your host country’s cultural values, norms, and traditions?
  • What are gender norms like in your host country? What role do transgender individuals occupy?
  • Are there safety considerations to keep in mind?
  • What is the attitude of police or other officials towards the LGBTQIA+ community in the host culture?
  • Are there specific laws related to LGBTQIA+ individuals in your host country?
  • Do you have specific accommodation needs?
  • What resources exist in your host city/country for LGBTQIA+ individuals?
  • How can you get connected to the local LGBTQIA+ community in your host city?

Personal Reflections:

  • How open will you be about your sexual orientation and gender identity with your teachers, peers, friends, host family and others?
  • Is it important that the city to which you travel has an active and vibrant LGBTQIA+ community?
  • What are your health and safety needs?
  • Is your study abroad program able to make special accommodations for students who request single rooms, private bathrooms/showers, or certain roommates?
  • If you are a transgender person, will you need access to any medications, supplies, or services to support your transition? Are they available in your host country? If not, will you need any additional documentation to travel with medication or supplies?

The answers to these questions are highly personal, but taking time to consider them and to discuss with a your study abroad advisor will help you find a program on which you can be successful and feel supported.

Resources:

Students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to study abroad, too! Depending upon where you travel, you may find that you’re no longer part of a minority. Alternatively, you may find that your racial/ethnic group is a minority in your host culture, which may bring some about some curious looks and questions from locals.

Racial and ethnic relations vary by culture. People may categorize and interpret your race, ethnicity and other identity attributes quite differently than what you are used to. There is the possibility that you may encounter microaggressions or overt discrimination. You also may not be able to find culturally-specific products you are used to, like beauty or haircare.

However, there is no need for you to feel as though you need to mask your identity while abroad. Viewing this as an opportunity to share your cultural identity with others who may not have much exposure to it can be a powerful outcome of cross-cultural exchange. Just as you will be learning about others, so too is this an opportunity for them to learn about you and your culture. Make sure to tap into your support network should you encounter any difficulties while abroad. The SAO staff can help you reflect upon, prepare for, and connect you to resources related to your identities for your time abroad, so we invite you to share your questions and concerns with us.

You can prepare yourself for the situations you may encounter by researching the minority and majority racial/ethnic composition of your host country and exploring its history of racial and ethnic relations. A great strategy is to speak with students of your same racial/ethnic background who have also studied abroad. Keeping an eye on current events in your host country can also help you to be informed about the social and political climate of your host country.

The SAO and the field of education abroad at large want to see more underrepresented students study abroad so many scholarships encourage and favor students from diverse backgrounds. Explore the resources below and make sure to ask your SAO advisor about scholarship opportunities!

General Resources:

Resources for African-American Travelers:

Resources for Arab-American Travelers:

Resources for Asian-American Travelers:

Resources for Latinx Travelers:

Although studying abroad with a disability (whether physical or otherwise) may pose certain challenges, UIC has a large program portfolio with programs that can accommodate students with a variety of needs. The Study Abroad Office believes that with enough advanced planning, students with a disability can identify a program on which they can be successful, and we are here to support you throughout the entire process.

Laws and resources for individuals with disabilities vary greatly around the globe and the infrastructure you might be accustomed to in the U.S. could look very differently abroad. Students with disabilities are highly encouraged to register with UIC’s Disability Resource Center and to give permission to DRC’s representatives to speak with Study Abroad Office staff so we can collectively work to ensure appropriate accommodations will be available during your time abroad.  During the application process, you will be able to disclose any conditions and accommodations you might want to share with us so we can help you prepare accordingly, but we invite you to begin the conversation even earlier as our advisors can help identify a program that is a good fit academically while providing you the best chance for personal success abroad.

Questions to Consider:

  • What is my disability? How can I describe my disability and its nature?
  • Am I willing to disclose my disability to others?
  • How might my experience with my disability abroad differ from my experience in the United States?
  • How will I meet my needs regarding my disability while abroad and is there a program that offers this kind of support?
  • What does having a disability mean in my host country? What terminology is utilized in the host language to refer to people with disabilities?
  • What does the population of people with disabilities look like in my host country? How visible and large is it?
  • What are the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and norms of the host culture regarding people with disabilities?
  • What resources are available to people with disabilities in my program or in my host country?
  • How should I respond if people give me unsolicited help in my host country?
  • How accessible are the physical spaces, resources, and services in my host country?
  • Will the inaccessibility of a program activity or excursion prevent me from participating?
  • How does transportation look in my host country and are paved walking paths available and accessible?

Resources:

The National Center for Education Statistics defines non-traditional students as students whose path to college, due to life circumstances,  differs from that of traditional college students, usually in these three domains:

Enrollment patterns. Assuming that traditional enrollment in postsecondary education is defined as enrolling immediately after high school and attending full time, students who diverge from this pattern would be considered non-traditional.

Financial and family status. Family responsibilities and financial constraints used to identify non-traditional students include having dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, working full time while enrolled, or being financially independent from parents.

High school graduation status. Students who did not receive a standard high school diploma but who earned some type of certificate of completion are also considered non-traditional. This includes GED recipients and those who received a high school certificate of completion.

We at the Study Abroad Office recognize the unique challenges that non-traditional students face in pursuing their higher education, however, we are committed to ensuring you also have access to a study abroad opportunity. Often, non-traditional students are unable to be away for an extended period of time and think that this means study abroad is not feasible. However, our program portfolio includes many short-term programs. We have several programs that occur for short durations over the summer. Additionally, we are expanding our embedded program options. An embedded program is a study abroad program that occurs during an academic break, such as spring break, and is attached to a regular semester course. In this way, you can still have a meaningful international experience without being away for a longer period of time!

Here are some questions you might be considering as a non-traditional student looking to study abroad:

Is it possible for me to bring my child/partner with me during my study abroad program?

There may be some programs which allow you to bring your child or partner along with you. Speak with your study abroad advisor to learn if this is possible for the program in which you are interested. However, you should consider the following:

  • There could be additional expenses associated with securing special housing, visas, and so forth
  • Your child or partner will not be allowed to participate on any program activities or in your classes so they will need to be independent
  • If considering bringing a child, consider the potential need for childcare while abroad
  • Your child/partner will not be covered under the same comprehensive international health insurance policy that you will be

Can I request to have individual housing or select a roommate that is closer to my age and shares similar interests?

While some programs may offer individual housing options, many make use of shared student accommodations. In such cases, you may be able to request independent housing for an additional fee. When shared housing is used on a program, students can typically request a specific roommate. Speak with your study abroad advisor to learn what options exist for the program in which you are interested.

Resources

  • Scholarships for non-traditional students – these scholarships are not specific to study abroad, but if you receive a scholarship that can help cover your college expenses then you may have more funding you can allocate towards studying abroad. Make sure you also consider our study abroad scholarships!

One of the reasons you might be interested in studying abroad is because of a personal connection you or your family have with the host culture. Studying abroad can be a wonderful opportunity for you to connect with your cultural and ancestral heritage and explore your intersecting identities. Some programs are even tailored to heritage-seeking students, such as our own Social Justice, Identity, and Language in Oaxaca program, which was developed for heritage speakers of Spanish.

Although studying abroad in a country where you have cultural ties can bring about new insights into your personal identity, sometimes students do report certain challenges. For instance, occasionally students are surprised that they are considered to be one-dimensionally “American”  by the host culture whereas in the U.S. perhaps students are accustomed to belonging to a minority cultural group. Heritage students studying abroad in locations where English is not the predominant language may experience an assumption by the locals that they know how to speak the host language. Although these can be challenging intercultural moments, ultimately they can be very powerful in helping you develop a richer understanding of your own identities.

While you might be expecting to feel a greater sense of belonging or “home” studying abroad in a location where you have heritage ties, the reality is that the experience is more likely to consist of a mixture of highs and lows leaving you with a deeper appreciation of culture and identity. Below, check out some resources as you consider studying abroad as a heritage seeker.

Resources:

If you’ve never traveled abroad before you may be wondering if you are prepared to study abroad. We at the Study Abroad Office are here to say a resounding “yes!” Choosing to study abroad as your first international travel experience can be a fantastic way to learn the ropes while having a unique and rewarding experience that is difficult to replicate later on in life. Our advisors are here to help you plan and prepare for your first time abroad and you will benefit from onsite support from our trusted faculty members or partners on virtually all of our programs. Below, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions from first-time travelers, but don’t hesitate to speak with a member of our team if you have other questions!

Do I need a passport to study abroad? How do I obtain one?

Any individual traveling to a country where they are not a national will need a passport. U.S. citizens may apply for their passport via a U.S. Department of State-sanctioned passport acceptance facility (which usually can be found at select post offices). The Department of State’s website is the best place to go for information about applying for or renewing a passport. Keep in mind that it can take several weeks to obtain a passport, so you are encouraged to apply for one as soon as possible.

If you’d like more information about applying or renewing a passport, please watch our short presentation at the following link: https://go.uic.edu/PassportPresentation

What is a visa and do I need one?

A visa is permission given to you from another country’s designated officials allowing you to enter that country for a specific purpose, usually given in the form of a stamp or seal in your passport (although some countries make use of electronic visas attached to your flight itinerary). Visa regulations differ by country and are dependent upon the citizenship of each individual traveler and their reasons for traveling to a given country. For instance, U.S. citizens do not require a visa to travel to many (but not all) countries in Europe if their stay is shorter than 90 days while citizens from other countries may require a visa. Typically students studying abroad on programs lasting for a semester or longer will require a student visa. In any case, your study abroad advisor will let you know if a visa is required for your program and provide basic information about how you can obtain one if necessary. Check out the visa section of our Before You Leave page for more information.

Do I need to purchase my own airfare?

Some of our programs will include a group flight while others do not and allow you to purchase your own flights to and from your study abroad destination. If a flight is not included in your program fee, our advisors and/or program partners will let you know what airports to fly into and out of and what dates/times to book your airfare. There are a number of online flight search tools such as Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, Google Flights, and so forth. The UIC Study Abroad Office also works with StudentUniverse, a leading student travel agency that has a lot of experience helping student travelers. It is important that you do not book airfare for your program until you receive official notification from the UIC Study Abroad Office and your advisor for your program that it is ok to do so.

What do I pack?

As every traveler is different just as every destination is, this is a very difficult question to answer. In short, it is best to try and pack light as airlines can charge hefty fees for multiple checked bags. Additionally, you likely will be on the move a lot and need to be able to carry whatever you pack up and down stairs and/or on public transportation. Make sure you pack only what you can carry yourself.

Do your research to find out what the climate will be like while you are abroad and pack accordingly. Packing basic pieces that can be interchanged and clothing you can layer is usually a good approach so you can mix and match pieces or remove layers as the weather changes. You should also research cultural norms of dress for the country to where you are traveling. For instance, is it culturally appropriate for you to wear clothing that exposes a lot of skin? Do the locals wear shorts and sandals or will you stick out like a tourist if you wear clothing like this? The answers to questions such as these will help you decide what to pack and what to leave behind. You will receive information during your pre-departure orientation and from your program hosts that will also help you know what to pack.

In terms of electronics, countries around the world have different electrical currents and wall outlets, so you may need a converter, an adapter, or both to be able to use some of your devices abroad. A converter switches the electrical current of your device to be able to use it in a country with a different voltage. Most modern devices such as laptops or phones have a built-in converter so make sure to check whether or not this is the case for your devices. An adapter allows you to physically be able to plug a device in a wall outlet that has a different face than what we have in North America. Resources such as this one can help you determine what you might need to take.

If you have prescriptions then make sure that you pack these in your carry-on bag as opposed to your checked luggage in case your checked bag is lost or delayed in transit. For more information about traveling with prescriptions, visit our Before You Go Health & Safety page.

Don’t bring any sentimental or high-value items that you don’t need while abroad.

Is it safe to study abroad?

While safety can never be guaranteed, the UIC Study Abroad Office is committed to offering programs that have been thoroughly vetted with health and safety foremost in mind.  We work with many reputable study abroad partner institutions and organizations around the world that have years of experience and professional staff trained to support U.S. college students studying abroad. Additionally, we regularly review information from trusted sources such as the U.S. Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and many more to determine if it is reasonably safe to offer programs in certain locations around the world and to prepare students with site-specific health and safety information. All students traveling abroad will participate in at least one pre-departure orientation where health and safety protocols, including what to do in an emergency, are covered. The Study Abroad Office operates a 24/7 emergency response phone line so we can help respond to students in an emergency situation abroad.  Additionally, all students are required to be covered by a comprehensive international health insurance policy while abroad. We have prepared this section of our website to help students understand what we are doing and what they need to do in order to have as safe and healthy of an experience abroad as possible.