Religion & Study Abroad
Religion isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when we think about how to prepare students to study abroad; however, open pre-departure discussions about religion can greatly enrich a student’s in-country experience. A recent Gallup Poll confirms that a majority of US Americans -- at least nominally -- believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems. Despite the prevalence of various religious traditions throughout the United States, we tend to value individualism and privacy in this country, especially as it concerns beliefs and practices perceived to be very personal, like religion. Furthermore, our political preference for the separation of church and state, the veneration of personal liberty, and a focus on political correctness have profoundly influenced our perceptions of religion. In many other places around the world, however, religion is not perceived to be a taboo topic of conversation nor a strictly personal decision.
As students travel for study abroad, especially to places where religion is a fundamental part of daily life, it will be necessary to navigate the local customs while also honoring a student’s own personal belief system. Students from non-religious (or only nominally religious) backgrounds will benefit from a pre-departure discussion on how faith and religion are expressed in the host country. This could include a discussion of how to answer questions while in-country regarding one’s religious background (or lack thereof) as some host-country nationals may be surprised to meet someone without a strong association with religion. What are polite and culturally-appropriate ways to respond to these questions? Would debate about religion be well-received in the host country? Similarly, study abroad students with strong religious beliefs will want to consider what options are available to practice their religion in-country. How will these religious practices be interpreted in the host country? Is it safe to speak openly about these religious practices in the host country?
Owen Willis’ 2012 article published in the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education entitled The Study Abroad Experience: Where Does Religion Fit?, deals directly with the intersection of religion and study abroad. Willis provides a thoughtful perspective from a development background on this important, albeit infrequently discussed, topic. At the end of the article, Willis focuses on specific pedagogical approaches that can be utilized to prepare study abroad students to fully engage with the complexities of religion in another country. Regardless of the destination, religion is often an influential component of a study abroad experience and can greatly impact the quality of a student’s educational pursuit.