Cultural difference

Sexuality and gender

Cultures vary significantly in terms of attitudes toward sex, sexuality and gender expression. While some places in which you could study abroad may seem very open-minded and relaxed about sex, sexuality and sexual orientation as well as about gender expression (i.e. whether men seem masculine or women feminine), others can appear far less so compared to the United States. Moreover, what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior and gender identity performance varies culturally as well.

So it is essential that you consider your choices and needs in terms of personal expression of identity and sexuality as well as learn about the cultural standards of the country where you are going. For example, same-sex hand holding is considered a sign of homosexuality in the United States; in other parts of the world, it may simply signify friendship. On the other hand, inviting or meeting someone of the opposite sex for coffee or a drink alone is considered acceptable in the United States; but it may be considered an invitation to dating, or even risqué in another more socially conservative country.

You will have to determine not only what would be a comfortable and safe balance in terms of your personal expression of sexuality and gender, but also, what the laws of a given country permit and penalize. Some countries criminalize homosexuality. Others disallow premarital sex. And even in countries without formal legal barriers, cultural norms may frown upon and prohibit sexual and gender expression of various kinds.

Disability

Disability, whether it is mental, emotional, sensory or learning disability, need not prevent you from studying abroad. However, as with all other aspects of study abroad, a successful experience will require you to prepare carefully, especially as you apply for programs and for housing. Discuss your concerns with your study abroad advisor and inquire about the availability of medical and other care related to your particular condition before you go, to make sure your needs will be met.

Not all programs or sites will offer resources and services for all special needs; getting this information ahead of time will help you determine which programs are suitable for you and will prevent problems down the line. Mobility International is a resource for people with disability who want to study or travel overseas. Identify other forms of support available locally with which you can connect once you arrive.

Education overseas

The culture of higher education overseas is often very different from that of U.S. colleges and universities. While the U.S. educational system is decentralized, with everything from courses and exams to rules and regulations set at the institutional level for the most part, this may or may not the case in many other countries. Also, the culture of study is different, as are exams. Often, courses in overseas institutions have less frequent homework assignments and tests that are graded, with one final exam for just about the entire grade in the course. This doesn’t mean that you wait until the final exam to start studying! It simply means that you bear the responsibility for keeping up with the work and with studying the material during the semester, without external pressure.

This responsibility for your work extends to other things as well. Professors and authority may not spell out for you what you need to do or to read for a class, but you are expected to learn what you need to do and to do it. So, after your arrival, be sure to identify key tasks and the locations of important services. Ask questions. Make connections.