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Study Explores Study Abroad by Trans and Gender Expansive Students

By Dane S. Claussen, PhD, MBA

Manager of University Relations

Athena Study Abroad

“Gender x Culture: A pilot project exploring the study abroad experiences of trans and gender expansive students,” by Taylor Michi, Kelsey Pegg, and Amanda Kracen, all of Webster University, was published in the Fall 2019 issue of Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad.

Through snowball sampling, the three researchers recruited three persons who had recently studied abroad and are trans and/or gender expansive (TGE). Gender expansive individuals are defined as those who “identify and/or express their genders in ways that broaden cultural understandings of gender. This identity can encompass people who are genderqueer, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and otherwise not cisgender.” (The study also defined genderqueer and its other key terms.) The article points out about its authors, “One of the researchers is a gender expansive person, one is a nonbinary trans person, and one is a cisgender woman.”

The researchers organized a focus group in which the three subjects were asked a series of 13 questions over the course of two hours. (Unusually, participants were provided the list of focus group questions in advance.) The researchers followed the focus group with one-on-one interviews, and then deployed a four-step thematic analysis process to identify seven themes that emerged from the focus group and interviews. The researchers noted that their thematic analysis approach “does not require a specific theoretical or disciplinary framework.”

The seven themes were composed of 171 codes—short summarizing phrases—taken from the focus group and the interviews. The seven themes were: Navigating the Gender and Identity Journey (which had two subthemes: The Process of “Coming Out” and The Significance of Pronouns), Constructing Community, Experiencing Threat and Violence, Managing Others’ Assumptions about Identity; Performing and Policing Gender; Lacking Preparation and Institutional Support; and Celebrating their Experiences of Studying Abroad.

Evidence was varied and rich even though from a small sample. For example, one individual studied abroad in a country where the language does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. One individual said that their support system in the US is largely queer persons, but that was not the case abroad. And, unfortunately, “all participants described experiences of sexual harassment and/or violence while studying abroad,” including one case of rape. Subjects all said that they did not receive any information or resources from their home institutions about LGBTQ+ communities or safety considerations in their destination countries before going. (The participants also said they “completed little to no research on their own about their study abroad locations before going.”) But each of them appreciated their study abroad experiences and said they would do it again.

The researchers were aware of multiple limitations from the very small sample size. Calling their work a “pilot project,” they wrote, “The researchers do not seek to present trans and gender expansive study abroad students as a monolithic population in this study. Rather, the aim was to provide a shared narrative from a small group of three individuals on this complex topic for past, present, and future TGE study abroad students.” The researchers also were aware that participants all were from the same city, that two studied in Europe and one studied in Asia, and that one of the three researchers personally knew two participants before the study. One participant also said the focus group environment resulted in “feeling intimidated at moments,” although the researchers did not note that this is a common shortcoming of focus groups.

Michl, Pegg and Kracen thoroughly discussed their findings, including “identif[ying] areas for future research, and suggest[ing] specific methods through which institutions can provide support to these students.” They clearly agree with a 2018 call by Marijuan and Sanz, in Foreign Language Annals, “for more extensive research on LGBTQ+ study abroad experiences, as living internationally can be extremely gendered in nature.”

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