Host Community Engagement
Short-term study abroad can have long-term negative impacts if the traveler and program provider are not thoughtful and reflective about their engagements abroad. This page is intended to help you think about the unintended consequences of study abroad and foreign travel.
Consider Your Impact
Economic & Environmental Impact
- Upon arrival, figure out where your food/water/housing comes from. Do foreigners impose any hardship on local people, such as water shortages? Are visitors asked to conserve resources; is this enforced? What about garbage disposal and pollution? Is land being used for visitors rather than local needs? Have food cultures changed over time; have foreign chains arrived to cater to foreign tastes? What about shopping? Are locally produced items available and priced for local consumption?
- Does the economic impact of study abroad create economic inequality in the community? Do foreigners own or manage the hotels and shops that students/tourists frequent? Are guides and drivers outsiders or wealthier members of the community? Do local prices go up as a result of the student visit? Who is employed and who is not?
- Do student/tourist visits contribute to economies of dependency on outsiders, orienting those economies to pleasing or providing pleasure for wealthy foreigners rather than to local needs?
- Is there a season for foreign visitors to come to the area, such that student visits contribute to a boom and bust cycle in the local economy? Is there any way to mitigate this effect? If not, what does a constant influx look like for local businesses or customers? What products are or are not available?
In addition to considering your consumption of resources in relation to the community, you may wish to incorporate sustainable practices while abroad for environmental reasons. Our Sustainability Abroad page has more resources and suggestions for minimizing your environmental impact while abroad.
- Do your patterns of consumption contribute to problems in the community? The "demonstration effect" of students bringing high-end travel gear and clothes, spending money easily in restaurants, giving gifts, etc. may create resentment, a perception of American students as wealthy consumers with no responsibilities at home (McLaren, 2006), or the desire in local people (especially youth) to leave the community so they can make money to buy similar goods and services. Even traveling on an airplane or traveling away from home can create these problems among people who do not have that option.
- Are local people excluded from any of the areas where foreigners are encouraged or allowed to go? Think about museums, national parks, or other areas of cultural significance in addition to shops, restaurants, and transportation.
- Are you appropriating culture or appreciating culture? For example, cultural appreciation might mean wearing local garments because someone from the culture gifted them to you or invited you to an event (e.g., a wedding) where it is respectful to dress that way.
- Are you well-behaved and respectful in terms of the local culture? Do you dress in culturally inappropriate clothing or otherwise commit cultural offenses that will anger, distress, or shock people in the local community? Is your depiction of your experience on social media an accurate representation? What would it tell an outsider about your host community? Would most local people approve of this depiction? Do you see culture and the "authenticity" of local people as commodities to be consumed? What other cultural impacts result from foreigners' visits? Cultural differences themselves are likely sources of confusion and conflict in unanticipated ways.
- Do you smoke, drink, or do drugs during their visit? The effects of these behaviors can range from being poor role models for local youth to bringing new addictions to the community.
- Do you demonstrate other expressions of privilege during your visit, such as doing things "our" way, eating "our" food, playing "our" music, requiring things to be done on "our" schedule?
- Do you bring damaging stereotypes that should be examined? These might include "poor people," "indigenous people," or "people in developing countries," as well as racist and exoticizing images of people in other countries. Positive stereotypes should also be examined; the idea that "everyone is happy" minimizes the lived realities of marginalized groups.
- Are there human rights issues that are exacerbated by the presence of foreigners? Who defines what a human right is and for whom?
- Does your presence or activities reinforce a negative self-image for local people (e.g., that Americans are smarter, more competent, more attractive)? Is there any way your presence could promote a positive self-image instead? How can you contribute to building the dignity of all people?
What You Can Do
To mitigate potentially negative impacts, we encourage you to honor the host community's independence; to never impose your personal agenda when working or interacting with the community; to respect local people's visions and opinions above your own; and to be vigilant of any cultural impacts you might be having and adjust your behaviors and actions as necessary. Below are some additional tips to make the most of your time abroad and to leave a positive impact:
- Engage in every activity fully, remaining mentally and emotionally present. Consider going unplugged: while technology can be helpful to keep us connected to our world and people at home, many times it limits our ability to immerse ourselves in the local community or interferes with our ability to make ourselves available to the people right in front of us.
- Recognize the value of play and lightheartedness in cultivating friendships.
- Observe, listen, and inquire rather than criticize, rationalize, or withdraw.
- Risk making mistakes.
Own the Power of Your Words and Actions
- Question your and your peers’ use of words like "authentic," "real," "rural," "indigenous," and "traditional." Who defines what is "authentic" or "real"?
- "To suggest the life of a rural citizen is any more or less 'real' than that of an urban citizen of the same culture is condescending and can indicate a disturbingly colonial nostalgia for a cultural experience laden with pre-development realities" (Johnson, 2009, p. 184).
- Practice culturally sensitive photography: always ask first. Photos of children are sometimes easily taken as we seek to document memorable experiences in the community, but be careful and considerate when taking and sharing kids’ photos. Who can consent to being photographed? Do those in your photos know where and how you plan to share them?
- When confronted with a language barrier, speak English as little as possible. Expand your vocabulary and actively engage community members with nonverbal communication.
Keep an Open Heart, an Open Mind
- Take advantage of opportunities to interact with people who are different from you. Try to say 'yes' to new ways of interacting that you may not have considered before.
- Keep an open mind and heart but avoid romanticizing your experiences in host communities. Remember that below the surface of a seemingly homogenous social structure are power hierarchies, conflicting interests, and patterns of discrimination and exclusion. Pay attention when you notice these patterns or structures.
- Be a listener more than talker; a learner more than teacher; a facilitator more than leader.
- "Go slow. Respect people. Practice humility, and don’t condescend with your good intentions. Make friends. Ask questions. Know that you are visitor. Keep promises even if that means mailing a photograph a few weeks later. Be a personal ambassador of your home culture, and take your new perspectives home so that you can share them with your neighbor" (Potts, 2008).
Stay Flexible, Mindful, and Adaptable
- Do not try to replicate the U.S. in your host community; avoid demanding the services you would expect at home. Remember, this experience is temporary. Instead, observe the way things are done locally and refrain from judgment. When you feel yourself getting irritated or judgmental, take a step back and try to understand why the local people do things differently from the way you are accustomed.
- Listen to be surprised. Speak with local people to understand their viewpoints, and be willing to challenge your own assumptions.
- Avoid the "theme park" experience, the places that were clearly designed for foreigners' amusement. Consider where local people go, and why, instead.
- As you meet people and form relationships, remain curious about the larger global, national, and local structures that exist. Global learning must reach in both directions—toward persons and structures.
When Things Get Tough
Stop Complaining and Start Reflecting!
- When you catch yourself complaining, ask yourself: Can we—both hosts and guests—learn to adapt to each other? Can our differences be a source of mutual enrichment rather than separation?
- When we discover that things abroad are profoundly different from things at home, our natural tendency is to flee away from them. Instead of seeking to understand why certain practices irritate us, our immediate impulse is to simply spurn them as primitive, uncivilized, and even immoral.
- "Doing so justifies our escape from the culturally disagreeable environment into behaviors where we can feel protected and affirmed: calling home frequently, sleeping either too much or too little, reading romance novels, blogging or listening to music for hours, movies…We may not 'return home' in a physical sense, but psychologically we’re a world away" (Slimbach, 2012, p. 158-160).
Get Out Your Journal
- Writing in an analytic mode helps us to calm down, gain some objectivity, and ask the critical questions: What provoked this reaction from me? How do local people interpret this act or event? And what does my reaction tell me about myself?
- Especially as we learn to put personal experiences and reactions into a larger social and theoretical context, our writing takes on a distinctive character, one that joins personal expression with cultural analysis, and encourages a more rigorous cognitive process than is common in conversation.
Develop the Six Skills of Intercultural Communication
- Cultivating curiosity about another culture and empathy toward its members.
- Discovering the culturally conditioned images that are evoked in the minds of the people when they think, act, and react to the world around them.
- Recognizing that role expectations and other social variables such as age, sex, social and economic class, religion, ethnicity, and place of residence affect the way a people act and behave.
- Identifying situational variables and conventions that shape behavior in important ways.
- Understanding that people generally act the way they do because they are using options that their society allows for satisfying basic physical and psychological needs.
- Evaluating a generalization about the target culture (from the evidence substantiating the statements) and locating and organizing information about the target culture from the library, internet, mass media, people, and personal observation and reflection (Slimbach, 2005).
Cultural Differences vs. Harmful Incidents
- You are strongly encouraged to learn about your host country/culture, including how it views sex, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, and other identity categories. GLO's identity pages are a good place to start as you consider how your identities may intersect with the host culture.
- Cultural relativism does not excuse or negate the real, lived experiences of individuals who experience harassment or assault. You do not need to submit to behaviors that invade your personal boundaries or that make you feel unsafe. If you experience sexual misconduct abroad, know there are resources and options available to you.
- Cultural exchange is complex and often unclear; norms vary by place, group, and time. When you encounter situations that make you pause or question intentions, take note. Discuss your questions and concerns with program staff, local peers, or other trusted human resources. Remember, exchange is not unilateral; those you interact with are a part of your exchange, too.
Much of the content in this page is adapted from Slimbach, R. (2012). Becoming world wise: A guide to global learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Additionally, we want to acknowledge the following references:
Johnson, M. (2009). Post-reciprocity: In defense of the "post" perspective. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 18, 181-186.
McLaren, D. (2006). Rethinking tourism and ecotravel. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.
Potts, R. (2008). A slight rant about the rhetoric of "ethical travel." Retrieved from Vagabonding.
Slimbach, R. (2005). The transcultural journey. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 11, 205-230.
Slimbach, R. (2012). Becoming world wise: A guide to global learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.