Many students choose to study abroad to learn more about their ancestry — these students are known as heritage seekers. The Institute of International Education has coined the term “heritage seeker” as a student who is drawn to study abroad in a particular country and culture “not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar.”
The type of experience you will have abroad as a heritage seeker will be unique. Some students come home feeling very connected to their ancestral roots, while others return feeling more appreciative of their American roots. Either way, going abroad will give you a chance to learn more about your ancestral history and the culture today firsthand.
Going to your ancestral homeland can be a very emotional experience because you are choosing the location not just for the academics, but for personal reasons as well. Some students will be able to meet with relatives, while others will be connecting with their ancestral history or the language of their family through coursework. Many students found that local community members have high expectations regarding the cultural knowledge and linguistic capabilities of heritage seeking students.
Heritage seekers, at times, have idealized views of their ancestral homes, so it is important to go into the country with an open mind. You may be welcomed by the local community, but still considered an outsider. Often in the U.S., people will ask about your ancestral background and someone will reply, “I’m Irish, French, and German.”, but abroad, you are seen as an American.
Some Things to Consider:
- How will I be perceived in my home country?
- How should I react if I find something to be offensive?
- How will it be to be a part of the majority abroad?
- How will I handle it if relatives ask for money or other favors while I am there?
- Will there be other heritage students in my program?
- I will be studying in the country my parents are from, but I have never been there before and I do not speak the language.
- How might other parts of my identity affect my experience?
Tips for Heritage Seekers Traveling Abroad
We ask students to share their experiences on how various parts of their identity impacted them while they were abroad in their program evaluations. Below are tips and advice given by Badgers about their individual experiences and thoughts. These do not represent all experiences in a location. Our staff is happy to talk with you about any questions you may have.
Tips from your fellow Badgers on being a heritage seeker in…
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“People in China were sometimes confused as to why I didn’t speak Chinese, and they would question me. I just had to accept that even though I looked Chinese, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to fit in because I am American. Be patient with yourself, especially if you are learning Chinese, and be comfortable with who you are.” – China participant
“It was very difficult because as a Chinese adoptee many Chinese citizens felt the need to point out my flaws. They liked to tell me that my Chinese was poor, I was too “black” and that I was fat. They often forgot that I was just like the white students who were learning Chinese, and would praise them but degrade me. Do not be afraid to tell people that you are working just as hard as the other students who are also studying. We may not be as appreciated but what matters is that we are studying for ourselves, not for the acknowledgment of others.“– China participant
“I am Indian so my host family was very comfortable with me and didn’t really see me as an “American” student, but as one of them. Families may have biases about you and make assumptions about your identity or how you identify. They may also assume you know or don’t know certain things. Just be yourself.” – India participant
“This was a great opportunity to get in touch with my roots and be able to immerse myself in my identity 100% without fear of being discriminated against. If you are the same ethnicity of the country that you are going to, this is an amazing time to really get in touch with your culture. Depending on where you are from, you may have been discriminated against, like I have. However, in your country, you can really be who you are without fear and don’t ever be ashamed of your identity. Be proud, and really enjoy every moment.” – South Korea participant
“As a Korean-American, I went to Korea with the desire to learn more about my roots. However, my experience abroad made me realize just how deeply my identity was influenced by my life in America. While abroad, I realized how distant I was from the lifestyle and culture in Korea. Despite the similarities I had with Korean people in terms of appearance, it was difficult for me to feel like I really belonged in Korea. After this experience, I felt more convinced and confident of my identity as an American. Make efforts to meet and befriend not just the international and exchange students, but also the local students. Don’t be discouraged if it becomes difficult because there are still a lot of lessons that can be learned from those efforts.” – South Korea participant
“I was able to connect my ethnic group’s experiences to that of the Hmong, but also gain a new lens. I had to remain open-minded to the fact that some things are unfamiliar to me, and to respect the differences as well as appreciate the reasonings behind their customs. It’s important to take a step back and look at how you think differently than the people you study so that you can better understand their way of thinking or problem-solving. No particular way is better, just unique.” – Thailand participant
“I chose my program because I wanted to learn more about the history of my people. It provided another side to the story and allowed us to ask and learn directly from the people who experienced it. Don’t be shy or afraid to prod around. Be bold and ask questions.” – Thailand participant
“My hometown widely celebrates Scandinavian culture, but being able to learn about modern traditions and teach others in my home community about them was an invaluable experience. Scandinavian and Nordic culture has greatly changed since my great grandparents came to America, and to experience and share what the modern life is like is awesome.” – Denmark participant
“I found it interesting to see a lot of the country where my family came from. I also had the chance to visit them and finally meet them which I found incredibly rewarding.” – England participant
“Being a Norwegian and an American, it was a largely personal and intentional choice to go to Norway. It’s where my family comes from and where I call home. I’ve spent most of my life in America and felt somewhat separated from my birth country. These six months were a time to understand myself and heritage better.” – Norway participant
“I felt like once I told locals my dad was born and raised in this country they became even more friendly with me. I think that it positively impacted my experience here. I did not feel homesick; I felt at home. My advice for other people in a similar situation would be to contact anyone you have a relationship with in the country. It makes your experience so much more unique and powerful when you can connect with locals on a different level. You get to learn more about the culture and yourself too.” – Argentina participant