For Ashley Trebisacci, studying abroad was a life-changing experience. Her time at Oxford University expanded her worldview and helped her grow as a person — but more than that, she discovered her queer identity, and met the woman she now plans to marry.
We know a lot about students who study abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, in the 2015-2016 school year 66.5 percent were women, 2.5 percent studied agriculture, 11.1 percent studied somewhere in Asia. Yet there’s no hard data on how many identified as LGBTQ.
And for queer people, the decision to go abroad can come with some added questions: What’s the social and political climate like? Can they be out to their host family? Does the city have a queer scene?
Without answers to those questions, some study abroad professionals worry students will forgo the experience altogether — and miss out on all its benefits.
Starting on the right foot
Some schools are already trying to address queer students’ questions. But in an NPR callout to LGBTQ people who have studied or are studying abroad, the majority of respondents (110 of 186) said they received no resources or advice from their program about studying abroad as an LGBTQ person.
Michael Nieto says that’s a problem. He’s co-chairman of NAFSA Rainbow-SIG, a special interest group that offers resources for educators and LGBTQ students, including scholarships.
He says it’s key that programs not only offer LGBTQ-related resources, but also make them available for students to access on their own time. That way, they’re not in a position of having to out themselves.
“I was closeted when I was in college,” he says. “Just the act of pulling a pamphlet with maybe a rainbow flag on it was an act of essentially coming out.”
Many students also turn to peers who’ve studied abroad in the past. Six years after she studied in Santiago, Chile, Julia Villarruel still gets Facebook messages asking about Chile’s queer communities.
She says when she was getting ready to study abroad, she saw an opportunity to start over. “I had been closeted for 20 years before, and I was like, ‘I’m in this new country, I can reinvent myself. But I’m also kinda scared to do it.’ ”
Villarruel says that as study abroad goes, her experience was a bit unusual. Classes were often canceled because of political protests at the time. She found a queer scene, albeit fairly underground, through political organizing.
“I was on a different continent, far away from my conservative parents, so I had a lot of room to experiment,” Villarruel says. “It was this amazing opportunity for me to develop politically, and also find out where exactly I am on the queer spectrum.”
A study abroad “phenomenon”
After Trebisacci graduated, she spent three years working in a study abroad office. There, she says she began to notice a pattern: A lot of LGBTQ students had stories that echoed her own study abroad experience.
“Coming out while studying abroad wasn’t totally unique, and seemed to be kind of a phenomenon and a thing that happened,” she says. “And that’s when I started to think, ‘Well, this is pretty prime for research.’ ”
A few years later, in graduate school, she began researching study abroad and identity development in queer students. She wrote about her experience and came up with recommendations for how programs can better support and prepare LGBTQ people.
For one, she suggests making gender and sexuality more visible in pre-departure programs — whether that’s connecting queer students with peers who’ve already been abroad, or just making sure identity is talked about more openly.
She’d also like to see study abroad offices give students more time to think through what identities are most salient to them before they go abroad. That way when students are in their host countries, she says, they’ll already have a bit of practice in thinking about what it means to be their gender, race and sexuality in a new context.
Don’t paint countries in broad strokes
Of course, study abroad can also be an extremely trying — and at times scary — experience for students. Out of the LGBTQ people who responded to NPR’s callout, 46 percent (85 of 186) said they felt either discriminated against or unsafe at some point because of their identity.
Max Goldberg is one of those students. He studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2015 — two years after the country made international headlines for passing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Goldberg says the first time he went to a local gay club, he was accosted and harassed by a group of men as he was leaving.
“Anything that seems homosexual in the street, in any public sphere, is gonna get a violent response,” he says. ” … You have to be careful if you’re gonna engage in any of these things. … While I got lucky, a lot of other people wouldn’t have, and I was running some risks.”
But studying abroad in Russia wasn’t a completely negative experience for Goldberg. “I loved it,” he says. “I had a great time.”
Lauren Chow, a study abroad adviser in Boston, says it’s important for queer students to be wary of different laws and social climates. But it’s also important for programs not to oversimplify things when it comes to choosing destinations.
She says she has seen a disturbing pattern: “The ‘good’ countries for studying abroad if you’re queer are usually the European ones, or the white ones. The brown countries are usually the red, ‘danger,’ ‘don’t-study-abroad-here-if-you’re-queer’ sort of countries. And I think that’s kind of overly simplistic.”
Chow studied in Kyoto, Japan, in 2012 and did a Fulbright in Kodiang, Malaysia, from 2015 to 2016. And while she wasn’t entirely out, she formed close bonds in the community and found her time there rewarding.
“I think people tend to look at the country as a destination, but it’s really more the local community where you find yourself in, and the people you interact with,” Chow says.
For queer kids, that change of scene provides an important opportunity.
“You might be able to finally find people you feel like you fit in with,” Nieto says. ” … It might be the first time you feel comfortable in your own skin.”