Contributed by: 2017-2018 Diversity Abroad Religious IdentityTask Force members:
Vivian-Lee Nyitray – Univ of California System; Lillian Read - Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University; Ira Kirschner - Rothberg International School, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Ashley Metz - University of Minnesota, Learning Abroad Center; Daniella Lubey - University of San Francisco
It is safe to wager that most students studying abroad in recent, current or future years are not familiar with the 1991 R.E.M. song referenced in the title of this article. While the song's lyrics are not actually about losing one's religion (in fact, it is a southern saying akin to 'being at the end of one's rope'), like all good art – it can be about anything you want it to be about. Appropriately, the song's lyrics (such as “...life is bigger… than you, and you are not me…”) can be relevant and significant to the religious identity experience many students go through while studying abroad.
For many people, religion is an invisible identity, unless they choose to wear clear religious symbols or religious dress. Those who don't 'show' their identity, can also choose whether to 'out' themselves as religious (or as secular, if they are in a religious society). The choice to visibly identify as religious is just one choice that many people can make regarding identity throughout their lives. It can be a challenging decision due to anticipated perceptions about the reaction from others – will my identity be disrespected? Will I be ridiculed for believing, or not believing, in a higher power? Is my religious practice legal in my current location? For others, it is not so much a concern, but more that they consider religion a private or personal matter and not something they need or want to share with others.
Religious Identity in Study Abroad
While studying abroad, students are faced with establishing support networks in a new environment that can feel far from the comforts of home. This can place students who want to explore a religion in a situation they haven’t experienced before – do they out themselves and risk being, at best, acknowledged as "the (non)religious one", or at worst, ridiculed as "the (non)believer"? This question echoes even stronger for students coming from a country where they were a religious majority, and are studying abroad in a country where they are a religious minority - such as Christian American students studying in a predominantly Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist country. Being in the religious minority abroad raises questions about accessibility to religious services and resources, personal safety, and more. Being perceived or treated as a "minority" while abroad can be a valuable learning opportunity for students who may have no prior experience being "othered" at home. Although this is a unique experience for students to better understand the everyday challenges of their peers from minority or underrepresented communities, it can still be a jarring experience for students who have never experienced a minority status before. Many of these experiences were indicated on a recent student survey distributed by Diversity Abroad and members of the Diversity Network Religious Identity Task Force. An American Christian student who studied abroad in a diverse religious community in South Africa reflected on her time as a religious minority stating: “[studying abroad there was] a learning and humbling curve for me to realise that I ought to also be tolerant to other people's religions and not feel so superior and conceited.”
Exposure of religious identity is also a critical issue for students with other visible identities, and raises the topic of intersectionality and legitimacy of dual identities. Due to the way that some religious leaders treat those who identify as LGBTQ, there are members of the queer community that are not comfortable around religion. Does this mean that an LGBTQ observant Muslim will be unwanted in an LGBTQ group due to their religious beliefs? There are also implications for race and ethnicity. In Israel it is not uncommon for a person of color to be Jewish. However, outside of Israel, Judaism is not a religion often associated with a person of color. Will that person not be believed to be Jewish, simply because of the color of their skin? Additionally, students may find that their ethnicity means that their host culture assumes they practice a certain religion. A Christian student studying abroad in India reported, “I am Indian by heritage, so when I went abroad many people assumed I was Hindu since majority of Indians are.”
Supporting Students in the Religious Minority
These are not easy questions, and often require bravery from the student to insist on the legitimacy of their intersectional identity. In regard to "outing" one's self as non-religious/religious, it is important to keep personal safety in mind and the specific country the student is in. Sometimes, people are curious about those that are different than they are and other times, they may be afraid of those that are different than they are. Open communication about faith, or lack of faith, is extremely conducive to learning about the other, building bridges and dismantling fears. Additionally, students going to a country where religion is a dominant and highly visible part of the host culture may need advice on how to interact with that aspect of society while abroad. A Christian student who studied in Oman stated, “I felt comfortable with what I am (Christian), but I was more worried on how to show I do not judge religion of any sort and I am open minded, while being in the Middle East.”
The same is true about becoming a religious minority while studying abroad. No one should be afraid to ask about finding resources and a religious community. Religious minority students will often find a desire to support their religious needs because they are a religious minority – as opposed to denying them access to resources because of that.
Religious students also need to be aware that they might be held up as an example for their entire religion, and might be called out if they defy the religious stereotype. For example, a Christian student that identified as religious might be reminded by their roommates not to forget to go to church on Sunday – even if the Christian student wasn't planning on going. A Jewish student might be called out for eating pork, and a Muslim student might not be invited to a pub crawl because their peers might assume that they don't drink alcohol or don’t want to be in an environment that serves it. It's important also to acknowledge Atheist students, who might be criticized for any portrayal of a religious belief, whether intentional or not.
Ultimately, these decisions are personal, and are up to each student. Individual factors also play a part and include the specific country's religion and climate, the student's comfort and level of self-confidence, and more. It is necessary for study abroad advisors to feel comfortable asking students if religious identity is a consideration for their study abroad experience; if students don’t feel comfortable talking about it, they can opt out of the discussion (but at least the responsibility of bringing it up won’t be on them). Staff at the hosting institutions should go out of their way to address this issue by normalizing the topic of religion, making sure that all advisors have a general familiarity with religious identities, and designating a staff member who will help connect students to the relevant resources in their host community. Students should feel comfortable asking all staff, from advisors at their home universities to their host institutions abroad, about resources for their religious identity. The comfort of discussing religion can be created by providing resources for students (that advisors can present to them without having in depth familiarity of specific identities), of alumni discussing their experiences abroad in relation to their identity - blogs, vlogs, interviews, or even a list of alumni who are willing to be contacted by prospective students. We should all remember that making religious identity visible or invisible is a choice that everyone can make, that intersectionality of other identities with religious identity is not only legitimate but common, and that religious journeys are full of ups and downs (not to mention lefts and rights). It is a valuable experience for students to go through the processes of losing, or gaining, their religions while studying abroad.