Defining self : negotiating cultural, gender, and ethnic identity in a short-term study abroad program in Russia

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Segura, Tatiana Borisovna, 1974-

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Study abroad programs are a common component of many foreign language programs across the United States. Of these university-based study abroad programs, short-term language-focused programs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Despite the growing popularity of short-term study abroad programs, there is little research on students’ sociocultural experiences under these short, intensive language-immersion conditions. Relatively few studies have addressed the issue of gender in the study abroad context. Brecht et al. in their longitudinal study on the effects of a study abroad stay on language proficiency gains in Russian found that gender was one of the significant predictors of language learning. The impact of gender on the process of second language and culture acquisition becomes particularly important in countries like Russia where perception and construction of gender roles is very different from that in the United States. These gender-related differences may cause students to have negative attitudes towards the Russian language and culture. Students belonging to ethnic minorities have different study abroad experiences from students who belong to the ethnic majority or mainstream culture. In the rise of terrorist attacks administered by Chechen separatists on the territory of Russia in the past several years, native Russians are becoming less tolerant with representatives of ethnic minorities and therefore, more suspicious and hostile towards individuals with non-Caucasian features. Being constantly racially-profiled can turn an otherwise pleasant language and culture learning experience into a nightmare. A better understanding of how race and ethnicity affect learning processes in a study abroad setting will result in rethinking of how learners’ differences (and the outcomes of those differences) enter the formal language teaching curriculum. The present study investigates how American college students visiting Russia on a five-week-long study abroad program perceive and describe their cultural, gender, and ethnic experiences. The results of this ethnographic case study are analyzed through the lens of critical theory that argues that human society is essentially oppressive and that societal inequality is reproduced through the dominant ideology.