Heritage seekers or heritage learners are sometimes described as students who are drawn to study abroad in a particular country and culture "not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar" (IIE). For many students, studying abroad in a country of ancestry or cultural heritage is an opportunity to connect with their family and personal history and culture. For other students, studying abroad in a particular country or region can offer insights into their home culture or ancestry—such as racial or religious ancestry—even if there is not a direct ancestral or familial connection.
Studying abroad as a heritage seeker can be a complex journey that brings expected, as well as unexpected, experiences and emotions. It can be incredibly fulfilling to find community and cultural connection in a country of ancestry or heritage, and for many heritage seeker study abroad students, this connection is nuanced with moments of cultural distinction. For example, students may at times be identified more as an American or a non-local; experience generalizations about their racial/ethnic identities; or face different expectations from community members due to cultural ties. Yet through these complex experiences, heritage seeker students often report a newfound sense of belonging and a more in-depth understanding of their own identity through their time abroad.
Some students expect or seek a feeling of home during heritage seeking trips. The experience itself will likely be a spectrum of highs and lows, so we'd like to share some resources.
Read more about specific identities and locations below.
Learn About Your Destination
Heritage seeker students often report unique needs, goals, and challenges. You are encouraged to research your destination to understand how your various identities may intersect with your study abroad experience. You may find it helpful to read about other heritage seeker students' perspectives during this process.Learn About Your Destination
Region-Specific Considerations & Resources
Heritage Seekers in Africa:
Heritage Seekers in Asia:
Heritage Seekers in Latin America:
Heritage Seekers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA):
Student ExperiencesEach student's experience is unique. The below student experiences are not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to offer a variety of perspectives from Northwestern students who have studied abroad with heritage seeking motivations.
Weinberg 2021 | Hong Kong University of Science & Technology Exchange; GESI Vietnam; Public Health in Europe
"Studying abroad in Hong Kong provided me with a sense of assurance and pride that I had never quite attained despite being a Hong Kong American."
"I grew up in New York City and frequented the various Chinatowns, but being in Hong Kong provided me with a sense of comfort and appreciation for my culture and upbringing."
"It also made me starkly aware of the sacrifices of my parents and grandparents as I took classes in Hong Kong culture and Chinese politics - learning about the Hong Kong that they grew up in and eventually left."
"My advice is to continuously engage, whether that be through journaling or conversing with others, with your own identity and norms as you enter a new landscape and throughout the time you're abroad."
School of Communication 2020 | GESI Dominican Republic
"I wanted to study abroad in the Dominican Republic mostly because of my identity as an Afro-Caribbean woman and also as a way to develop my Spanish skills. I had watched many YouTube videos about things to expect in the DR and most of the times I found myself only looking for ways to prepare myself for the negatives. I was concerned about colorism and racial tensions, gender norms and also the discourse around natural hair, all of which would have impacted me in some way."
"I remember my host family introducing me as their cousin or niece who was visiting and people just assuming I was from the DR until I spoke Spanish and then being called American even though I am not. There were times when I was cat called, people commented on the fact that my skin got darker from the sun and also that my curly hair didn't look good, which were all things I had prepped for but I wasn't ready for in the moment."
"Being able to experience some of the same things that I did back home such as the fruits that we eat, being on the beach and also relaxing in the gallery with family, all helped to lessen my homesickness."
"I think my biggest takeaway from my time in the DR was being able to deal with the whiplash of things feeling so similar and comfortable and then something happening that was so unexpected and changing this experience for me. What helped me the most was not always comparing things to back home or to the dream of what I wanted my experience to be and just taking it each day at a time. I would tell future students to do the same. I think research of course is important and we also can't help but having expectations but we should not be disappointed when things don't go exactly as we wished, because at times they won't."
Weinberg 2018 | GESI Bolivia
"Growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American in the United States, I have always felt a sense of disconnect from my Latinx culture and familial roots. Despite being the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I did not know how to speak any Spanish, nor did I know much about my cultural heritage. I have long been driven to gain a sense of connection to my Latinx culture. So, I focused on learning Spanish and Latin American & Caribbean Studies while at Northwestern and wanted to develop a deeper real-world understanding of Spanish and the Latinx culture by studying abroad in Cochabamba, Bolivia."
"While studying abroad, I discovered I was able to relate to the Latinx culture through the relationship I grew with my beloved host families. This cherished relationship provided me a safe avenue of learning and greatly impacted my overall experience. If you are living with a host family, I encourage you to invest in developing a meaningful relationship with your host family."
"Studying abroad helped me develop a sense of awareness that I can unapologetically own my Latinx identity without justification. While in Bolivia, I was often asked where I was from since I spoke Spanish at a more advanced level. Some would even assume I was from certain countries in Latin America given my skin color. From this, I learned to take pride in ascertaining my identity as a Mexican-American who struggled to both learn Spanish and connect with her Latinx culture as a young adult."
"I challenged myself to engage in chat with local Bolivians as I went about my day and was surprised to see how easy it can be to bond with locals over my love of literature and art. My highs include meeting an artist who became a friend and would share his artwork and explain the cultural inspiration of his pieces."
McCormick 2022 | GESI Ghana
"Growing up in Kenya, I consumed a lot of Western media - books, television, pop culture, etc. White supremacy was very much present and alive - I was conditioned to believe that everything Western and White was ideal; I grew up regretting that I had been born in Africa. For me, going to Ghana involved a conscious effort to appreciate my home continent, to learn the cultures of a different African country and direct my gaze away from Whiteness and Westernization."
"I did not really have many expectations going into Ghana, as African cultures have a lot of similarities between them, but I was surprised at how different they could be. I interacted with customs I could not even remotely associate with my home culture."
"My highs involved living with my home-stay family and indulging in their culture and customs. My lows involved disappointment at seeing how entrenched White supremacy is in yet another African country – people ‘idolizing’ my non-black or mixed race counterparts and the ‘Americanness’ we brought with us."
"It was also interesting to see that many a lot of Ghanaian customs have prevailed in the face of Westernization and continue to be weaved into society. Where I come from, culture and customs have eroded by a great deal, and part of studying in Ghana for me was to gain a stronger sense of familiarity with ‘African’ cultures that I missed out on while growing up."
Cindy Ramos Rico
SESP 2019 | GESI Bolivia
"As a first-generation, person of color attending Northwestern, it is difficult to find a place where you belong and feel accepted. It was such a privilege to attend Northwestern, and I did not want the opportunity of studying abroad to slip away from me."
"I chose to study abroad in Bolivia because it allowed me to achieve an experience that felt comfortable while also providing me with a chance to experience new things. Being a native Spanish speaker allowed me the comfortability to navigate Bolivia while also having the necessary resources to succeed (my host family, Northwestern, and the Bolivian organizations I worked with)."
"Although I had the support I needed, the experience still had its own challenges. While I had the ability to embrace my Mexican heritage in Bolivia, I was still seen as an outsider - an American. Being American overshadowed my own heritage at times, and it was difficult. My advice for any heritage speaker going abroad is to be ready to have that experience."
"You can never be too prepared. Research customs and cultures but also understand that your expectations will still differ at times. It might be intimidating to be generalized or incorrectly identified, but this is a new learning experience for everyone. Curiosity is a universal trait."
"Don't be afraid to put yourself out there - ask questions, make friends, and take advantage of the privilege that comes from this amazing experience!"
McCormick 2019 | Energy Technology & Policy: Wanxiang Fellows in China; GESI Uganda
Want to share your heritage seeking story? Email us!
"As fulfilling as my study abroad in China was, I could feel the impact of the experience on myself continuing even after the program ended, as I left with a larger worldview of my own heritage and culture. Growing up as a Chinese-American, I went through the usual motions of any ABC (American Born Chinese): Saturday morning Chinese school, the occasional holiday celebration with overseas relatives, and the natural home conversations that sounded like intense arguments to my friends. These were all moments in my life I never fully appreciated until my study abroad experience."
"Even though I had attended Chinese school as a kid, the language course in Beijing allowed me to become even more familiar with Mandarin. Since I was in an intermediate class for native speakers, the professor was able to cater the content to our ability level and focus on vocabulary, which I was able to use in my daily conversations outside."