Diversity and Study Abroad

The University Office of Global Programs is committed to offering education abroad experiences to all Penn State undergraduate students.  By going abroad, you may find yourself in situations that are unfamiliar, challenging, and thought-provoking.  Moreover, you may encounter varying attitudes and perceptions of diversity issues. Understanding how these perceptions can influence your education abroad experience can go a long way toward a better understanding of yourself and the new culture in which you will live.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Even in the context of your native country, gender and sexuality are complex issues that are connected with gender roles and identity, intimacy and relationships and much more. Since perspectives regarding these identities are often culturally influenced, it is important to familiarize yourself with your host country’s laws, attitudes, and customs as they pertain to your own identity.

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as "a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity." Even in the context of your native culture, sexual health is a complex issue that is connected with gender roles and identity, intimacy and relationships, sexual orientation and behaviors and much more. Since perspectives regarding these terms and identities are often culturally influenced, sexual health becomes even more complex in the context of studying abroad.

Gender Roles and Identity

Gender roles and identity are socially constructed terms that are unique to each country and/or culture, and even within a single country or culture perspectives will vary. The differences in gender roles and identities between cultures span a range from minor and unnoticeable to major and life-altering. It is important to reflect on your native culture's views on the subject to get a sense of where your own thoughts on the subject may be originating. It is equally important to research - before you go - perspectives and ideas in your destination country so that you will have an idea of what to expect.

Tips While Abroad

  • Note the clothing styles worn by men and women in your age group and, as much as possible, dress in similar styles.
  • Watch how locals of the same age group interact with one another - both with the same sex and opposite sex - as this could provide insight into local perspectives on gender roles.
  • Ask locals and/or on-site staff members for advice on social interactions, especially with the opposite sex.
  • Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Be aware that friendly interactions can often be misinterpreted as sexual interest.
  • Use language that is direct, assertive and culturally appropriate, especially in response to unwanted attention.

Dating and Friendship

Social interactions of all kinds, including friendships and dating, are largely determined by cultural perspectives and will likely require you to make adjustments from what you are used to in the U.S. The best way to prepare is to research these topics with regard to your destination country before you go. Cultural norms regarding public displays of affection, dating rituals, expectations of friends and partners and acceptable dating/friendship behavior may vary greatly from U.S. norms. While in your host country, talk to locals in your age group about these topics and to clarify any questions or concerns.


Students of any sexual orientation should do research on their destination before leaving the U.S. Be aware of the legal restrictions regarding same-sex relationships in other countries, as well as the general attitudes of the population in the country where you plan to study. Other countries may be more, or less, tolerant than the U.S. Again, your on-site coordinator and your Education Abroad Adviser can be valuable resources. For more information please review the following resources:

Race and Ethnicity

Some students are surprised to learn how cultural differences may impact the perception of race and ethnicity. Regardless of destination, students should research how race and ethnicity are understood and defined within the host society. It is possible to alleviate some potential misunderstandings by learning about the culture of your host country in advance and asking questions about how your day-to-day experiences may differ there.

A New Environment, and New Perspectives

Students from racial and ethnic minority groups might be accustomed to identifying with their racial or ethnic group as the most defining characteristic of their cultural identity in the U.S. (e.g., "I'm Latina.").  While abroad, it is probable that students will first be identified or labeled as "American," and in many cases there might not be any further characterization.  This alone can be a new experience for students, so it's important to consider how you might feel or respond to this situation.  The following questions are a sample of inquiries that DiversityAbroad recommends students ask themselves prior to going abroad.  More information and sample questions can be found on the Diversity Abroad guide for diversity and inclusion abroad.

  • How is my ethnic group perceived in my host country? What kind of stereotypes are there? 
  • Am I used to being part of the majority at home but will be a minority abroad? Or vice versa?
  • Will there be other minority students in my program? 
  • Does my program have support staff that will understand and help me through any racial or discriminatory incident I may face? 

Heritage Students

Studying in a country of your heritage can present exciting opportunities to learn about family ties and cultural connections.  It can also bring unexpected challenges and emotional experiences.  It's important to arrive in country with an open mind and genuine curiosity.  To help you prepare for your experience, Diversity Abroad guide for diversity and inclusion abroad recommends that you consider the following:

  • How may I be perceived in my host country?
  • How will I react when people welcome me to my family’s homeland?  How might I react if others are not exactly welcoming?
  • What will I do if I find something confusing or offensive?
  • Will there be other heritage students in my program? 


Penn State is a member of the Diversity Abroad Network, a community that connects current students, recent graduates, and professionals together to reach a common goal. Diversity Abroad provides a variety of resources to students to assist in preparing to study abroad. In addition to Diversity Abroad, there are other resources to help you prepare and manage your time abroad.

Disabilities Abroad

The University Office of Global Programs is committed to offering education abroad experiences to all Penn State undergraduates. Students should be prepared for the fact that "disability" may be culturally defined. Attitudes toward disability and levels of accessibility can vary greatly from country to country. Before you go, find out as much as you can about your host culture and how local people view disability by reading, talking to other students, and attending pre-departure orientation sessions. The more you know, the better prepared you will be for the interaction between your disability and the new environment. While education abroad can be challenging, an overseas experience can help you learn more about yourself and your capabilities. The Student Disability Resources is an excellent resource both on the Penn State campus and while preparing to study abroad.

Special Accommodations Request

Before traveling abroad, you should complete the "Special Accommodations" questionnaire located within your online Penn State Education Abroad application (after acceptance). On this questionnaire you can list any documented disabilities and any health-related accommodations you will need while abroad (wheelchair access, additional exam time, etc.). In the case of a documented disability, Education Abroad will work with the Student Disability Resources and the on-site coordinator to ensure that every effort is made to accommodate your need.

Plan Ahead

Disclose your physical and/or learning disability needs to your faculty leader or Education Abroad Adviser and/or your program provider staff so that they can support you in seeking accommodations abroad, if necessary.

Consider The Following Questions:

  • What types of accommodations are usually available in my host country?
  • Will my host country be more or less accessible than the U.S.?
  • Will I need to speak about my disability in a foreign language?
  • How might my disability intersect with my host culture?