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The Effect of Ethnicity on the Development of Cultural Awareness and
Identity in a Study Abroad Setting
This investigation examines the impact of ethnicity on students' development of cultural awareness and identity
while studying abroad. The research focuses on an analysis of the University of Florida's International Studies
Abroad Summer 2004 program in Guanajuato, Mexico. Students were classified according to three main racial/
ethnic groups: White-European American, Hispanic-Latin American, and Black-African/Caribbean American.
Subjects were given written questionnaires examining their reactions to the Mexican culture. Data was also
collected in confidential 30-minute taped oral interviews with participants, in which they discussed their
experiences and impressions of the culture. The data indicate that ethnicity has a significant impact on
students' development of cultural identity during their time abroad.
It is widely accepted among educators that studying abroad provides university students with
unparalleled opportunities to develop global perspectives and skills to work and live in an international
society (Wright 2003). Interactions with other cultures promote mutual understanding on all levels of society and
aid in the peaceful resolution of conflicts (Wright 2003). In addition to neutralizing stereotypes of other
countries, studying abroad gives one the experience of being the foreigner and seeing one's own culture
more critically (Neff 2001). Distance can be the best way to understand American culture and the value of
its diversity (Gray et al. 2002).
Most students experience increased ability to identify with non-native speakers of English after studying
abroad. Many express empathy and admiration for the cultural contributions of immigrants and believe that
their newfound appreciation for human diversity is of utmost importance in this global age (Gray et al. 2002).
One study affirms the permanence of these positive effects. Ten years after completing the program "A Semester
at Sea," 40 participants were selected at random to answer a series of open-ended questions about the effects
of their travels. The subjects were also given the "Purpose in Life" (PIL) test designed by Crumbaugh. The PIL
scores revealed that all the participants felt they led meaningful lives, and the ideas they expressed in the
interviews suggested that the global perspectives they developed abroad were permanent (Dukes et al. 1991).
However, studying abroad requires a shift in perspective that can be difficult to achieve. It is crucial to begin
mental preparation before leaving, sensitizing oneself to the culture, and setting both academic and personal
goals (Gray et al. 2002). Two studies have shown that one's mindset profoundly affects the quality of
one's experience abroad. One, which investigated the degree to which 172 Taiwanese college students adapted
to their surroundings while studying in the United States (US), affirms the importance of attitude and personality
in students' ability to enjoy opportunities presented to them in foreign countries. According to these data,
mature students with high self-esteem are most likely to take advantage of all such opportunities, while less
secure students are more prone to depression and tend to suffer abroad because they are not strong enough to
fully open themselves to the culture. However, these tendencies are lessened when students attend orientations
and familiarize themselves with the host culture before traveling (Ying and Liese 1990).
In the other investigation, to determine if personality changes occur in American adolescents during one-month
stays in Japan, researchers administered the California Psychological Inventory to 154 foreign exchange students
and 112 of their classmates who remained in the US. Students took the test before the trip, immediately after,
and four months later. In comparison to the control, the group that studied abroad became more flexible
and independent. Students that were the first in their families to travel abroad and those that paid for the
program themselves changed most dramatically (Stitsworth 1989).
More frequently than educators may recognize, the reasons considered educationally valid for studying abroad
are not the same ones that motivate undergraduates. For example, in an interview from the New York Times,
an undergraduate from Cornell University confessed that he only chose to spend a semester in Seville because
he could drink legally and the grades he earned there would not count on his transcript. As is commonly the
case, students on that program interacted almost exclusively with each other, rarely studying or socializing
with Spaniards. However, the students considered their time in Seville to be the highlight of their
undergraduate experience (Altschuler 2001).
According to Lisa Chieffo, the study abroad coordinator at the University of Delaware, studies analyzing the
benefits of academic travel are inconclusive. Although study abroad seems like a good idea, frustration and failure
in negotiating a foreign culture can injure students' self-esteem and ultimately impede ability to benefit from
time abroad (Altschuler 2001). Researchers suggest that, to maximize gains from foreign study, students
should have academic reasons for traveling, be prepared to face challenges, and maintain an open mind
In summary, numerous studies demonstrate the importance of foreign study to the undergraduate experience,
in order to stimulate personal development. Study abroad can offer a unique opportunity for students to
redefine their own cultural identity. However, an analysis of the effect of ethnicity on this process has not yet
been conducted. The data collected in Guanajuato, Mexico provide a basis for such investigation.
UF's advanced Spanish program in Guanajuato took place from May 10 to June 18, 2004, while the University
of Guanajuato's spring semester was still in session. 17 undergraduates, from 19 to 23 years of age,
participated. There were 14 women and three men, of diverse ethnoracial origins2 - European, African,
Caribbean, Hispanic - but they were all American citizens. As part of the program, the students took two 75
minute classes daily, lived with local families, and went on weekend excursions to tourist attractions in Mexico.
The data were collected throughout the fifth week of the program. Students completed questionnaires on
their experiences in the Mexican culture. The investigator also recorded confidential interviews with each
participant about his or her experiences and impressions of the program.3
The questionnaire contained the following questions:
1. How would you characterize relations between Mexicans and foreigners (North Americans, Europeans, other
2. To what degree, and how, have these cultural differences affected you? Have you changed your behavior in
certain situations? How and why?
3. In Mexico, have you found yourself in a situation in which you felt uncomfortable? Explain.
4. In general, how has being a "foreigner" affected you? Do you want to be recognized as an American? Why? Or do
you identify more with another nationality?
5. What more do you want to gain from your stay in Mexico? How do you plan to accomplish this?
In the interviews, the researcher asked the following questions:
1. What was the worst part about studying abroad in Guanajuato?
2. What is the most important thing you learned here?
3. What aspect of the culture affected you most?
4. What have you learned about yourself as a result of being a "foreigner"?
5. Is there a way in which your experience abroad has changed your personality, behavior, or philosophy of life?
The only native Spanish speaker, Participant #3, showed much personal development without suffering from
the exaggerated attention that the Black students constantly received. Although she already knew the language,
and maintained close ties with her Cuban heritage, this student tried to seize every opportunity possible to
learn about a Latin culture different from her own:
I went on all the excursions; they were all great. I did things that I never would have done alone, like
horseback riding up a mountain...my first recommendation [to other students] would be to never stay home,
because you're going to waste so much time. There are so many things to do.... The most important thing I
learned was to strike a balance between staying with the UF group and meeting Mexicans. 4
According to the two UF professors, Participant #3 asked many questions in class and participated actively
in discussions. She also helped her classmates with their classwork and their spoken Spanish whenever she could.
In every respect, #3 seemed to blend into the culture quite easily, and she did not receive the same attention
from the men as the White or Black women did. She explained:
They know I'm Latin, and really exotic people like [#5, the fairest White woman] or [#11, the darkest Black
woman] receive more attention...men whistle at me as they do to all the women5, but that doesn't really bother me.
Moreover, the positive interactions she had with Mexicans destroyed the stereotypes that she and her family
The best part of studying here for me has been meeting new people and learning how different the life and culture
of Mexico is, that it's very different from the stereotype we have in the US; for example...that [the men] are
very macho and all. At least in our house the sehora's in charge. Moreover, everyone's very hardworking;
[we thought they were lazy] but it's not true.
Although she blended well into the culture and even adapted her dialect to communicate more easily with the
locals, #3 never identified personally with Mexican culture:
I speak more slowly, because sometimes here they don't understand me, but when I come home I'll go right back
to the Cuban accent. It's funny because here I consider myself American, but in America I consider myself Cuban.
Evidently, her experience abroad increased her understanding of Latin American culture and also changed her
own cultural identity, because she began to self-identify as an American more than ever before. Perhaps it was
her experience with another culture that enabled her to profit from her experience in Guanajuato. Or possibly being
a minority in the US made #3 more sensitive and understanding of cultural differences. The case of Participant
#7 provides an interesting basis of comparison.
Participant #7 incorporated her experience with Argentine culture into the cultural identity that she developed
while studying in Mexico, because she spoke nearly fluent Spanish and she seemed "Argentine" to most
Mexicans. Although she was actually of Italian-American origin, #7 enjoyed being mistaken for an Argentine
because she had noticed that being Latin facilitated communication with the Mexicans:
Last year I studied in Argentina; all the time here they think I'm Argentine, because I have the accent. That's
why they're not embarrassed to speak to me, which is great because in the US I've seen that Latin people
are ashamed to [speak in Spanish to] people who aren't Latin.
Her experience in Argentina also caused her to examine her own culture more critically. Few students shared
such strong sentiments of cultural responsibility:
They're a little conservative here, so I had to be careful; I didn't want to offend anyone. People here think
we're crazy and loud, but we have to represent our culture and our country [well]. You have to be really
careful because, for example, if you don't know a Norwegian and then you meet one, you're going to think
all Norwegians are just like him. It's the same thing with us Americans.
Participant #7 seemed to have strongly identified with the Argentines during the year she spent there, and this
time was enough to overcome the ethnocentric mentality exhibited by many Americans. However, the other
White students, who had not previously spent time in a foreign culture, did not show such cultural sensitivity.
They were comfortable with being "foreigners," because the locals were already accustomed to seeing
White Americans and generally stereotyped them favorably. In any case, none of the White Americans
expressed discomfort with their status as "foreigners." According to #12,
It's easy to be American here; I don't care if they call me American or ask if I'm European. In Puerto Vallarta
there were many other foreigners; here there are only a few, but the locals don't look at me strangely.
Exaggerated male attention was the only problem that the White students6 noted in their interactions with
the Mexicans. In the words of #14,
Being American - being foreign - is a different experience; it's interesting to see [how the Mexicans treat us].
It's different especially if you're blonde; you get a lot of attention. At the beginning this bothered me a lot,
especially because I'm not accustomed to [male attention], but now it doesn't bother me.
This comment indicates a lack of awareness that the Mexican men's behavior was part of the culture and not just
a nuisance to be tolerated. It seemed that the experience of being a minority was so temporary for the Whites
that they tried to preserve their "Americanness." In fact, the interview with #5 suggests that studying
abroad intensified her identity as an American to the point that she rejected the host culture while still in Mexico:
Before the trip, I had never been a foreigner or a minority. I'm proud of being American - because I am American
- Mexican traditions are interesting but they're not for me.
Curiously, #2 advised other students to "keep an open mind," but the thoughts she shared in her interview
contradict this recommendation:
My idea of some people has changed for the worse, because the men are very disrespectful and we don't get
along with the women because their men are interested in us. So [the women] think that all Americans are easy
and it's not true. I've met a few Mexicans but the men are...interesting...and the attention is very annoying. Before
I came to Guanajuato, I had a pretty open mind, but it's pretty closed right now.
Although #2 only expressed irritation with one aspect of the culture - the men - her negative comments indicate
that time abroad decreased her cultural sensitivity and intensified her preference for North American men. All
the White women's reactions to male attention demonstrated a tendency to blame men for actions they
considered 'crude,' although they were commonplace in the host culture. However, instead of simply
resenting Mexican cultural norms, Black students internalized the negative attention. The way in which
darker-skinned students were seen by Mexicans caused them to examine and change core aspects of their
identity. Participant #17 described this in his interview:
I'm the only Black guy here, and it's hard because there are so many people staring all the time. People speak to
me in English; they think I don't know the language just because I'm Black. It's not prejudice; I think that
people here just aren't used to seeing Blacks.
Subject #11 agreed:
Here I feel more Jamaican than American. People always ask me where I am from because I look different from
the Black Americans on TV. The Mexicans know that Jamaica is a mix. So, since they know I'm not originally from
the US, they refer to me as 'the Jamaican girl,' not American, even though I've lived in the US for 12 years.
I'm American to myself but not to them.
It's really hard being Black in Guanajuato, or in Mexico for that matter. I'm like an exhibit piece. They yell
'morena' and 'guapa' and they will stare at me for so long that I think they are going to burn a hole in my skin.
I know they don't mean anything by it but it gets old. The children are scared of me. Every day I feel
uncomfortable. It's horrible to feel so out of place sometimes.
Seeing the Guanajuato residents' inexperience with American racial diversity helped these students to see
beyond their own stereotypes. Studying in a relatively small city where they were minorities offered students
the opportunity to learn valuable lessons such as, in the words of Participant #8, "people don't fit in boxes."
This Black woman spoke a rather standard Spanish; therefore, many Mexicans asked if she was Colombian,
since they did not know how to classify her. This seemed to be a mind-opening experience for #8:
You can't put people in boxes or make stereotypes because there are variations. This impacted me, because before
I thought that Mexicans looked and acted a certain way and now I see it's not like that at all. My mother is from
the Bahamas and my father is [Black] American, but I've spent five years in Florida, so I say I'm Floridian.
In Mexico, for me there's less prejudice than in the US, because [in the US] people think that [because I'm Black]
I listen to rap and all... in the US being black is a box and nothing more, but here they don't know as much
about Black people. They say things to me, but they can't stereotype me because they don't know Black people.
The experience of being a minority and a foreigner had the greatest impact on these students; it compelled them
to reflect on the meaning of their cultural identities. Such forced self-examination added a new dimension
to students' learning abroad. By opening their minds, this experience also changed the students' perspectives on
the human condition.
Participant #4, a woman of non-Latin, Caribbean origin, began her interview describing the difficulty she
initially faced "surviving" in Guanajuato. However, the way in which the locals reacted to her caused her to
see beyond her own circumstantial issues and worry about how the Mexicans saw her and what it meant to be
Since Guanajuato is in the center [of Mexico], the people don't have much experience with foreigners other
than White Americans. Here they call me 'boricua' and 'morena' but not 'negrita' because I'm not that dark. But
I could be Mexican; how do they know I'm not? Especially in the big cities, the people aren't that similar, and
even here, I could cover my head and look Mexican.
Subject #4 admitted that she wanted to look less Jamaican in order to attract less attention. In his
questionnaire, #17 expressed a similar sentiment, and observed that the Mexicans' reactions to people of his
race changed the way in which he interacted with them:
The strongest cultural difference is the lack of black people here. I am not as forward when I approach
people because I believe that they might not be as accustomed to black people. It is very strange and very
apparent [that I am American] because I am black and there are very few black people here. I don't want to
be recognized as a foreigner and...I don't like people that speak to me in English with the preconceived notion that
I don't know Spanish because I am from the US.
In her questionnaire, #16 also detected many Mexicans' apparent discomfort with dark-skinned people:
They stare and make comments at you; they seem to be awkward with black people, I guess because they think
all Americans look the same...but for the most part you get used to all the whistles, stares, and comments and
This woman did not seem to suffer as much as the other participants of her ethnicity. Perhaps the fact that
she interpreted her experiences in a journal on a daily basis helped her to see beyond the negative treatment of
her ethnoracial group in certain situations:
I feel more Mexican...that's why we're studying here, to be part of the culture and use the language. When I'm
in another place, especially another country, I can think more about who I am and who I want to be. And when
I meet new people, they make me think of things I'd otherwise never think about. This doesn't make me
change aspects of my personality, but...it makes me define exactly who I am. I write my thoughts in a diary
to express exactly what I'm feeling and remind myself of the experience.
It is plausible that the diary encouraged #16's introspective tendencies and facilitated adaptation to the culture.
In Mexico, she changed her behavior more dramatically than most; for example, she was the only student to
mention that she changed the way in which she dressed. Moreover, in her questionnaire, #16 discussed at
length what it means to be American:
I think it's important to respect the culture and as a result I have definitely acted in a certain way; I try to speak
in Spanish as much as possible when I'm in the house and also respect our sehora (say 'thank you' always)...I
haven't brought any guys to the house because I know here that is not something that you do. Also I have not
worn some of my clothing because I think it crosses the line of acceptability.
I have enjoyed [the experience] - it's interesting to see how we are perceived. I'm American in the sense that
I'm 'rushing' and materialistic, but I think since our group especially has been here, we have (hopefully) changed
the stereotype of what is 'American.' Right now I do not want to be known as American due to our president
but ideologically I believe in what America stands for. Being away truly makes you think it through.
I want to be more comfortable with the language and just have a learning experience. By exposing yourself
to different types of people as well as a different language, you really see what you are about and stand for. Thus
far I have learned [a lot] and really just have to take it all with me.
One can conclude that this woman's dedication to learning - and growing personally - from every experience
enabled her to profit greatly from her time in Mexico.
In contrast to the White students, Blacks internalized the Mexicans' comments, and in many cases
consciously changed behavior in hopes of assimilating enough to avoid such racially isolating remarks.
However, Participant #16 shows that personal reflection can help students avoid harmful consequences of such
racial experiences. Nevertheless, all the cases hereby examined indicate that the experience of being a foreigner
and directly facing stereotypes on the part of another culture helps students reflect on and modify their own
ideas and even reinterpret their cultural identities.
The data indicate that minority status increases cultural awareness and promotes redefinition of cultural identity in
a study abroad setting, by forcing participants to compare perceptions of their ethnicity abroad and in the US and
to interpret what it means to be a foreigner. In fact, it appeared that in the case of those on the UF program
in Guanajuato, the students who were minorities in the US questioned and consequently modified their
cultural identities while abroad. Therefore, one might conclude that the minority experience in the US makes
one more sensitive to cultural differences while abroad. Perhaps this would be a topic worthy of
In any case, it seems that orientation classes in which students not only learn about the host culture before
traveling but also practice interacting personally with peers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds could
effectively promote cultural sensitivity among students studying abroad. As part of such an orientation
program, students could also correspond with their host families.
After arriving in a host country, students could record in a daily journal, for a grade, what they learn and
experience. The data collected in this investigation show that such reflection can help students to develop
cultural awareness and examine their own cultural identities more thoroughly. With cultural orientation prior
to travel, and reflective exercises throughout the program, perhaps students could better acquire the
tolerance necessary to accept and coexist with people of all ethnicities.
1. This is a questionnaire in which participants use a Likert scale to rate the truth of various responses as relating
to their sense of life purpose. Back
2. The sample consisted of 1 Hispanic, 6 Blacks, and 10 Whites. Back
3. Comments from the UF professors, gathered informally, were also taken into account.Back
4. Quotes have been translated from Spanish. Back
5. In the Mexican culture, it is rather common for men to whistle or shout compliments at women they find
6. All of the White students on the program were female. Back
1. Altschuler, G. C. (2001). La dolce semester. New York Times. p. A17.
2. Dukes, R. L., et al. (1991). Llong-term effects of travel and study: the semester at sea program.
Psychological Reports. 68, 563.
3. Gray, K., et al. (2002). Assessing study abroad's effect on an international mission. Change. Missouri Southern
State College. Heldref Publications. 34(3), 45.
4. Neff, R. A (2001). Discovering heritage and more by studying abroad. Black Issues in Higher Education. 8(12), 72.
5. Stitsworth, M. (1989). Personality changes associated with a sojourn in Japan. The Journal of Social Psychology.
6. Wright, T. (2003). Opening doors, crossing cultures, New York Times. Electronic Collection, A119115851.
7. Ying, Y. & Liese, L. (1990). Initial adaptation of Taiwan foreign students to the United States: the impact of
prearrival variables. American Journal of Community Psychology. 18, 825.
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