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Exploring Racial and Ethnic Identity as an International Student Studying Abroad

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Studying abroad can be a very exciting, yet daunting experience. I’ve always had wanderlust and thus knew I had to study abroad. As a British international student pursuing an undergraduate degree for the last three years in the United States, I knew that was not enough for me. I wanted to experience somewhere new, somewhere I’d always dreamt of going. That somewhere was Sydney, Australia. To be on a different side of the world experiencing a new culture has been amazing and rewarding. However, assimilating into a new culture is a huge endeavour. This account explores how some international students experience racial and ethnic relations differently between their host country and at home.

Fears and Anticipations in a New Culture

Alexia Muhire Nshuti, an IFSA student from Rwanda who grew up in Madagascar and studied in the U.K. and U.S., set her sights on Melbourne for her study abroad experience. Having already experienced an array of cultures in her time, she still felt some challenges leading up to her Australian experience. When asked about her fears before arriving, Alexia remarked on the social stigma she had heard about Australia regarding race. Through her research, looking back at the history of the country and the aboriginal people, there were some underlying worries she faced on status and treatment of people of different races. Moreover, not knowing much about Australia, nor having any family or friends there, was basically like starting a whole new chapter in her life – something I can greatly relate to. However, with almost any new culture there is going to be apprehension, which is very normal.

Identity and Interactions in Australia

Alexia, who proudly identifies herself as Rwandese, explains the simplicity in sometimes just saying she lives in New York (where she studies in the U.S.) because it is easier than delving into her background, as a lot of people can understand and relate more to such a popular place.
Being a young black woman, I wondered whether the colour of her skin had impacted her interactions whilst studying in Australia. Like most that are of a minority race in their host country, Alexia was conscious of it. Yet it never impacted her interactions in a negative way. In my experience, being of a different ethnicity from the majority can often make you stand out but not necessarily in a bad way. Due to her misconceptions at the beginning of her experience, she wondered whether certain occurrences happened because of the colour of her skin, or if it was just an oversight. Reflecting on her experience to date, though she was uncomfortable at first due to her initial fears, the more she got to know the country and the people, the less worried and more at ease she felt.

Uncertainties Faced from Moving to a New Place

Hunain Anees, a Pakistani student who grew up in Dubai, was always torn between studying in the U.S. and Australia. The U.S. is where he decided to study full time, but when the opportunity arose to study abroad for a semester, he knew where it had to be. Embarking on IFSA’s University of Sydney program fulfilled his dream of exploring Australia, a “beautiful country in its own world, geographically and culturally.”
Adjusting to a new place is something Hunain could say he’s used to. Although he has experienced culture shock in the past and adapted to the places he has lived, he still had an inner fear of how things were going to be in this new country. His main concern was that of being so alone and independent, and not just studying and living in a new place, but working professionally also. Being in a big city, as opposed to the small town where he studies in the U.S., Hunain feels that Sydney is more diverse, his experience here has allowed him to meet people from all walks of life, and he feels very much accepted in this city.

Ethnic Identity – Abroad

When asked about how he identifies himself, Hunain explained that he can identify differently depending on the context. First and foremost, he identifies himself as a Pakistani, but in addition as Middle Eastern and American, based on his origin, the places he has lived and where he feels he belongs. But how he goes about explaining his identity often depends on the person he is interacting with. With fleeting encounters he characterizes as a Pakistani, but with individuals who are more interested, he identifies with all three, explaining that it opens up conversation and tells more about himself.
He has noticed that his interactions with people in Australia can often differ based on the ethnicity of whom he is talking to. When people interact with him, he says their first impression of him is as a “Brown Asian” due to the color of his skin. But as they converse, they notice other identities such as an “American-ness”, perhaps reflecting on his years living and studying in the US. Yet, when interacting with those of Pakistani, Indian or Middle Eastern background, for example, he can relate in regards to language and culture. “Being a migrant my whole life,” he exclaims, “I can talk somewhat differently with a person who also is [a migrant]” suggesting the relatability that impacts their conversations. He interacts with Australians in a more “explorative manner,” always eager to learn about the country, due to the difference in cultural expectations and little knowledge he has about the Australian culture.
Needless to say, these experiences are completely common for a study abroad student. With any new place, come fears, adjustments and differing interactions. Race and ethnicity can greatly shape our perceptions and attitudes when exploring a new environment, and studying abroad is a time when this reality can come into play and you experience the world in new ways.
Yasmin Kudsi is a management and business major at Skidmore College and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia in the spring 2017. She served as a Digital Marketing Assistant for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.