Earlier this year I was able to attend the bi-annual PULSE meeting; PULSE is an organization of full-time health and safety professionals at higher education institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The meeting included a panel discussion about Transgender Students and Students with Non-conforming Gender Identities in Study Abroad. The panelist were from American University and the University of Maryland, College Park. The aim was to facilitate a discussion and support health and safety for LGBTQ+ students, particularly transgender or gender non-conforming students.
The panel focused on a data informed and human rights approach to advising and supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students. Data reveals that even a small population, like self identifying transgender students, can benefit and really need support, and that support, when well informed and consistent, is beneficial to students studying abroad overall.
There are different paths that trans students and gender non-conforming students may choose to go down as they move through their study abroad experience. Some students will seize on an abroad opportunity as a time to come out and live their true identity. For some, this involves physical changes and the need for medical oversight and care, for others it is more nuanced. Not every trans person will seek to physically or chemically change their body. The choice to transition and have an outward, physical change can present challenges; take travel and identity documents for example - passport, visa, residence card, etc. It may be the case that these now do not match their external presentation. The choice to not physically or chemically change can present challenges as well.
So, we strive to ask ourselves; what can we as study abroad professionals do to facilitate positive group interactions and support for students? Training, being aware of resources, fostering positive and supportive group dynamics and really asking a student what does support for them look like in the location they plan to study in or visit. It is difficult to prep for the “what if”. However, the support piece translates nicely to safety, and taking a proactive approach will reward you and your students in the end. Safety features largely in many discussions about the participation of specifically trans students, but also the larger LGBTQ+ student population on study abroad programs. Viewing student participation through a human rights lens can really put a lot of issues and concerns in a different light. Thinking through key questions with students like - will I be safe? Will I be comfortable? What does support look like from my perspective? What support is available? Is this OK for me? You are giving them the information and resources to make an informed decision about how they will choose to identify while overseas and know that there are supports in many forms within their reach.