No support for student experiencing racism – it's not "culture shock"! Past Review

By (Carleton College) - abroad from 09/08/2014 to 12/21/2014 with

SIT Study Abroad: Belgrade, Budapest, and Vienna - Comparative European Perspectives on Conflict and Democracy

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
This experience was "worthwhile" in terms of being able to immerse myself - as much as is possible given Western, Asian, upper middle class identities - in local cultures. I'm glad to know more about this part of the world, and to know more about myself. I've grown more resilient and less dependent on institutions to support me.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 1 month - 6 months

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The independent research project was the best part of my experience. I was able to conduct interviews with local experts and travel to Srebrenica for research. My advisor was extremely helpful and available. The program's excursions were in large part well planned, and I was impressed with the contacts we had within government and within NGOs.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

I can't even begin to describe all that happened regarding racial discrimination and the program staff's inadequate support. However, I'm choosing to focus on this in my review because others have already provided lots of glowing remarks on other aspects of the program. Here I provide a few moments from my experience that I believe to be representative: 1. Before committing to the program, I had concerns about how I would be treated as a Chinese American woman in the Balkans. I contacted the program director through email, noting that I had experienced discrimination in the US and was worried about the climate in Belgrade and wherever I chose to do my independent study project. They replied: "I would be comfortable to say that i don’t think you have reasons to worry." They also gave me the contact information for a Taiwanese-American woman who was an alum of the program, and who had never reported facing discrimination. When I wrote to her, she admitted that she had faced racism, but she pitched it as an opportunity for her to act as a cultural ambassador and expose the locals to Asians. Later, when I was in-country and reckoning with negative experiences of my own, I reflected on that attitude and found that it was unfair to expect anyone to singlehandedly enlighten every rude stranger out of their bigotry. 2. As soon as I arrived in Belgrade, I realized that wherever I went, people would stare, point, laugh at me, and make rude comments. I've tried to block out these memories because they're so painful to think about, but here are a few examples: on the tram, two little girls looked at me and pulled up the corners of the eyes to make slitty eyes while their mothers looked on; walking down the street, a man walking with his girlfriend shouted in my face a shrill imitation of "Nihao"; another pair of women laughed and made mocking karate sounds at me. etc. I learned to fear going out by myself, going out after sundown, going out period. My favorite thing to do while traveling is to walk and explore on my own, and I couldn't do that at all. The harassment was more aggressive when I was alone, and I was also acutely aware of being a woman because men would catcall me, follow me, try to strike up a conversation wherever I went. I was constantly afraid. I stopped being open to connecting with locals, I stopped looking people in the eye, I put up blinders and cut myself off from the people around me. In Kosovo it was the worst: a young boy mocked hitting me in the face, and on our first night as we walked in a group of ten, a band of young men started shouting at me. I turned around and (for the first time) responded: "Go f**k yourself." They laughed and started following us through the streets. I hurried back to the hotel while other students went bar hopping. Basically I constantly felt like I had a target painted on my back. And many times that feeling was confirmed as reality. *There is another student on studyabroad101 who has reviewed this program saying that these incidents are usually "misunderstandings" and it really depends on your point of view. This is hilarious but unsurprising given our conversations about how to handle the incidents (we were in the same program group). In my opinion it's never okay to downplay, dismiss, or deny the very harmful effects of racism. Whatever the reasoning for why people act a certain way, it doesn't lessen its impact on the individuals who have to live with the consequences. 3. The program is obviously not responsible for the racism I experienced from locals. What they are responsible for is their reaction to my reporting it (proving their complicity in systems of oppression) and their ignorance that it would happen in the first place (they could have actually researched/asked Asian people in Belgrade about their treatment, or asked previous students of color specifically about their experiences). When I finally reported what was happening to me, after a few weeks of private shame and believing that this was all "my" problem to deal with, the program director was incredibly unhelpful. She told me that I needed to stop being angry and "pushing" - aka, pushing her to do something about the total lack of support for students with marginalized identities. She was extremely defensive, condescending, and invalidating of the emotions I was experiencing. Another staff member told me that he used to be angry when he was bullied and harassed for being homosexual, but after he accepted himself he wasn't angry anymore. Thus, he explained, I should just *accept* myself and then I'd be at peace. I respect his experience and recognize that I must deal with my internalized racism, but at the time this was slightly less helpful than when the Taiwanese-American alum told me that I should trust in Jesus and his love for me in these difficult times. 4. A military showcase was held in Belgrade, and our program staff gathered us all to advise us to take caution if we chose to attend, as there would doubtless be violent hooligans/nationalist fascists there. At this point I had already spoken to them about feeling physically unsafe, as had another student who was transgender and also being harassed by locals. I was upset that they did not acknowledge our concerns (1) so that the whole group would be aware of the vulnerability, and (2) so that we would not have to seek a private meeting to ask, again, for additional help and consideration of whether it would be unduly unsafe for us to go given our identities. When I angrily challenged the program director about not acknowledging these concerns in front of the group (I said something along the lines of feeling like a guinea pig being thrust into dangerous situations), she got extremely defensive, and I ended up having a series of meetings with the staff, who were also defensive and angry that I thought they weren't doing their jobs of trying to keep us safe. The program director simultaneously insisted that they had never had any way of predicting that I would encounter racism in Belgrade– and that it would be disrespectful and stupid of me not trust their opinion about the dangers of this particular event. I cried throughout these meetings, felt very much bullied and lectured at, as well as further victimized for simply trying, desperately, to figure out how to keep myself safe while participating in experiences that other students enjoyed freely. I didn't end up going to the military showcase but was told afterward that I should have, because there were many Japanese tourists there "and people loved them." 5. I Skyped with the SIT Dean of Students, who was thankfully very affirming in our conversation. They recommended that I see a psychotherapist in Belgrade to help me cope with the daily racism. SIT in the US set up the appointment through the insurance provider, which turned into a lot of bureaucracy and resulted in me traveling across the city to see a regular medical doctor who barely spoke English. I tried to explain the symptoms of my "culture shock" - acute anxiety and depression - to the confused doctor, who offered me sleeping pills, but I ended up talking to his son over the phone. The son told me what I already suspected, that racism is somewhat of a foreign concept in Serbia. However, since he had Chinese friends, he felt qualified to talk with me about what racism felt like. *** This is the medical experience SIT sent me to. *** After that, I went to a psychologist recommended by program staff and paid for it out of pocket, since the insurance forms were honestly too stressful for me to wrangle at the time. I'm thankful for that recommendation–the psychologist was actually very helpful in making me feel heard and understood, which no one else had done. 6. I recommended a number of changes to the staff before I left, including devoting a section of orientation to discussing marginalized identities and how they translate to the Balkans (obviously this varies from person to person). This would be helpful not only for those with marginalized identities but for everyone else in the group who would become aware of how those factors affect peers' experiences. I don't know if they've instituted any changes. Every time an SIT representative comes to my college I tell my story again and ask them to ask their higher-ups if anything has changed. I've never heard back, and I haven't heard from any program staff since I left Belgrade, so I assume they haven't done anything / don't care to inform me / don't regret any of their choices in how they handled my situation. All in all, I advise woke POC not to go on this program, but it's true that every individual has a different experience and some people will be bothered less by the rampant racism & unsupportive staff that I dealt with. If you have questions or just want to talk about this further, please find me on Facebook.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

* Food:

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

* Safety:

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes

Despite the difficulties I experienced with local people and with my program staff, which had a severe impact on my mental health, I did teach myself how to navigate studying abroad while my institution failed to support me. In all seriousness, persevering through this terrible experience has made me into a stronger person–if that sounds cliche, think of "resilience." I have radicalized politically, and I've taken it into my own hands to keep talking about this experience with other students, hoping to change the way we prepare for studying abroad. I'm not saying that you should or shouldn't go- but you should do more research and be aware of what you might encounter.


* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)

I honestly cannot comment well on this because I am privileged enough to not have had to worry about spending over the stipend. I know that people on my program were worried about their budgeting, and wealth was a source of division among the group, as some students were eager to go out to bars and restaurants constantly whereas others could not join those social outings. This is unfortunately not unusual for study abroad programs.


* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
How much did the program encourage you to use the language?

0 = No encouragement, 5 = frequent encouragement to use the language

How would you rate your language skills at the beginning of the program? None
How would you rate your language skills at the end of the program? Beginner
Do you have any tips/advice on the best ways to practice the language for future study abroad participants? Practicing at home with your host family

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you take classes with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans
About how many local friends did you make that you will likely keep in touch with?

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • My host family was a wonderful match, very liberal and understanding, and interested in politics and media, like I am.
  • I made a handful of great friends who understand how racism works
* What could be improved?
  • Support for students experiences racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and mental illness.
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? I wish I had known that I was only the second Asian person (possibly third person of color) to go on this program. I wish I had known what the climate was in Belgrade towards non-white foreigners.