Being a Student of Color Abroad
This is part six of my summer study abroad series! Follow along this summer as I post about my travels in Sweden and Denmark while I study in Stockholm and Copenhagen through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS).
Today’s topic is a bit more personal, but is a subject I felt was important to cover in this series: studying abroad as a student of color. I’ll be reflecting on my experience in a different country as a Latina student. Obviously, your experience as a student of color abroad depends on a number of factors, including how you identify, the other identities you may hold (e.g., as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, your religious affiliation, etc.) and your destination country. As you already know if you’ve been following along with this series, this summer, I studied in Denmark and Sweden.
You may be asking yourself, “Aren’t Denmark and Sweden even more progressive than the U.S.? Shouldn’t it be much easier for me in either of those countries?” While it’s true that many American progressive politicians have venerated the “Nordic model” and social democracy, the Nordic countries have very different histories and cultures from the U.S. One of the most obvious discrepancies between Scandinavian and American culture--to me, at least--is the role racial and ethnic identities play in everyday life.
Growing up, when someone asked where my family was from, I would always rather proudly say that my mother was from Mexico and my dad’s family was from Ireland and Russia. Now that I’m older, when I’m outside of the U.S. and someone asks me where I’m from, I say that I’m American, though I’ve also noticed that as Latina, this often prompts further questions. While there are certainly a lot of people in New York City and at Barnard who were born in a country other than the U.S., a lot of people like me, who are in the first generation on one or both sides of their family to be born in the United States, consider themselves American above all else.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never really thought about what the term “American” means, with its flexibility ironically encaptured in that old saying, “American as apple pie” (in case you didn’t already know, the oldest recipe for apple pie is English and over 200 years older than Jamestown). Perhaps the origins of apple pie are not American in the strictest sense, but Americans have adopted it into a cultural symbol, into the fabric of our nation (or in this case, our lexicon).
However, while I was in Scandinavia, I noticed that the distinction between where you grew up and where your family and ancestors are from is more explicit: a person born in Denmark may not consider themselves to be Danish because their parents (or even their parents’ parents) are from elsewhere. Even in legal matters, while being born within the United States grants you automatic citizenship as prescribed in the Fourteenth Amendment, many European nations operate instead under jus sanguinis and citizenship or nationality is granted to those with parents or spouses who are already citizens. (If you’re interested in European vs. American citizenship laws, this is a link to a really interesting article about the topic.)
Although the dynamic between place and person I encountered was interesting and definitely made me think more about American ideas around national identity and citizenship, it didn’t necessarily make me feel more at ease when it came to my own identities. I imagined a version of myself who had grown up in Scandinavia would always be something of an outsider inside society, not necessarily isolated but markedly different as a non-Swede or non-Dane. However, I feel that in the U.S., I can hold onto all aspects of my identity, with roots across Europe and in Mexico, born and raised in the United States.
All of this is not to say that the countries I visited were homogeneous, filled with only people who could trace their family histories back dozens of generations to the same place. In fact, there were vibrant communities and histories all around, of different religions, languages, and countries. The biggest difference for me was that I needed to look a bit more actively to find them than I’m accustomed to. That isn’t necessarily a consequence of New York being more diverse than Copenhagen or Stockholm; in general, Swedes and Danes are far less prone to oversharing than Americans are (on my first day of class, the faculty at DIS even warned us that Swedes despise any and all forms of small talk). However, if you start a sincere conversation with a Swede or a Dane, they’re happy to tell you about their experiences, and in turn, you can tell them about your own experiences (if you’re comfortable with that, of course).
Being in a city where it felt like nobody else shared my background was definitely different than what I’m used to, but I’ve also learned a lot from these experiences. As I would say on a tour, I feel like Barnard has really taught me to embrace my identity as a student of color and use it as an asset inside and outside of the classroom. This summer has allowed me to take those skills and apply them in a global context. I learned a lot, not only from my professors and classmates, but also from the locals I encountered as well.