Heritage Seekers Abroad


Many students decide to undertake their international experience in a place where they can learn about their ancestry and its associated culture. The Institution of International Education calls these students “heritage seekers,” as they are drawn to a particular country and culture “not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar.” As a heritage seeker you might meet with relatives, learn about various cultural aspects of your destination, or learn the language of your ancestors while abroad. 

Opportunities and Challenges You Might Face

Heritage seeking can be an exciting, emotional experience. While you might be welcomed into a local community in your host country, you might be treated like a local in some contexts and an outsider in others. Keep in mind that while you share an ethnic affiliation with the people of your host country, there might be many differences in your cultures, perceptions, and lived experiences that contribute to this. There is also the chance that others might generalize or incorrectly assume your ethnicity, or consider your nationality ahead of any ethnic ties that you might have. You might find that other students on your international program turn to you for assistance more frequently than they turn to others because they may perceive you as a cultural ambassador or expect you to speak the local language; such expectations can be just as exhausting as they can be empowering. 

Preparing Yourself

To best prepare yourself and set realistic expectations it is important to research the customs and culture of your host country before departure. Keep an open mind while conducting research and when in your host country; there might be differences between what you’ve learned about your host country from your family and your research and what you find it to actually be like once you arrive. After exploring your heritage abroad you might return to the U.S. feeling more connected to your ancestral roots or with a greater appreciation for the culture and roots of your home country, be that the U.S. or elsewhere. 

As you prepare to explore your heritage abroad, consider the following questions:

Questions to Consider/Action Items

  • How will I be perceived? 
  • Will there be other heritage seekers on my program?
  • Am I used to being a minority in the U.S.? If so, how might it feel to be part of the majority abroad?
  • How will I react if I find something to be offensive?