Amber Montgomery felt safe when she studied abroad in Jordan in the summer of 2015 except when she went to a pool house.
When Montgomery, a junior history and political science major, retreated to the locker room after spending the day swimming with her host family, she smiled at a man who handed her a towel. Mistaking her courtesy for something more, the man followed her to the locker room and Montgomery had to clarify she was just being polite — not inviting an advance.
She said the man’s behavior was a cultural misunderstanding, not a personal attack.
“It stopped before anything inappropriate happened,” Montgomery said, “[But] it was a little scary for a minute.”
Montgomery was one of four female students who shared their moments of culture shock at the Your Identity Abroad round table and self-defense training Monday night in the O’Hara Student Center Ballroom. The Vira I. Heinz Program, which gives scholarships to women at 14 different colleges throughout the United States, sponsored the event.
About 20 students came to the discussion to talk about handling identity differences between cultures and to learn self defense tactics from Pitt police officers.
Students sat at tables according to the region in which they studied or wanted to visit. The student leaders asked the groups to think about their identities as Americans and then challenge them within the context of race, gender and age in their regions.
The prompts had students think historically about topics like differing beauty standards and how to overcome their frustration with cultural differences by acknowledging and discussing them.
Though the students who attended the program said they had to adapt to the shock some locals felt at seeing fair-skinned people for the first time, many had to learn to talk to people who were older than them differently than they do their peers.
Junior Kaitlyn Wade said being comfortable with her self-identity helped to give her confidence abroad.
“I think you feel safer if you have a grounding of your identity, and you realize what you’re willing to give up and when you’re willing to take a stand before you go abroad,” Wade, who studied abroad in Russia, said.
When it comes to expressing queer sexuality, Abby Meinen, another of the 2015 Heinz fellows, said traveling students might need to balance conflicting desires.
“Do I want to be a well-traveled person and connect to the Moroccan community, or do I want to be a queer person? I found a duality,” Meinen, a junior English writing and global studies major, said.
Students studying abroad in the future had the chance to discuss their fears and ask for advice about treading unknown territory.
While violence is a possibility in any country, there was a heightened sense of tension among families and universities during the Paris attacks in November 2015. All four Pitt students studying in the city checked in as safe while misinformation about deaths swept international news.
Students Monday night said people traveling in other countries should be wary of making hasty assumptions during chaotic situations.
“Just because what you see in the news is true, don’t make generalizations about that entire country,” Wade said, referring to the Paris attacks. “Not every person is against you, no matter what it says in the news.”
Liz Schmele, a junior psychology major, was studying abroad in Madagascar when a woman approached her in the market and began petting her skin.
“I’m probably the first white person she’s encountered,” Schmele said to the room of students.
Schmele echoed the sentiments of many others who had to think about what it meant to look different in a very homogenous culture. She said recognizing one’s deviations from that homogeneity is an important part of the experience of traveling.
Four students studying abroad in Pittsburgh from India joined the discussions Monday.
Manasa Ranginani, who is from Hyderabad, India, has been studying public health at Pitt for the past six months and will graduate in December 2016. For her, one of the biggest cultural differences was being able to walk alone outside after dark.
In India, she said it is dangerous for a woman to be alone outside after 10 p.m.
“My roommates would say, ‘Why are you out so late? Come home.’” Ranginani said.
Ranginani’s form of culture shock isn’t universal.
Amanda Hopcroft, who studied health, culture and society in Tanzania, said the biggest culture shock came when she realized that for the first time in her life, she was a minority. When a Tanzanian child approached her one day, he was speechless even after she said hello in Swahili.
“Then he looked scared and ran away because he thought he had seen a ghost,” Hopcroft said.
Meinen emphasized that feeling alienated by the community or having a scary experience shouldn’t discourage people from studying abroad.
“[Going abroad isn’t] scary, it’s just something you have to be prepared for,” Meinen said. “[Self defense training] helps you build confidence.”
The self defense training explained basic mechanisms, like how to deflect an attacker with a strike, but the meeting’s leaders said building confidence and preparing for various types of experiences is more important.
“Be safe, be smart,” Wade said. “But don’t be afraid.”