Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad as a Person of Color: Queen, Furman University 

Queen is a senior attending Furman University in Greenville, SC. Read on as Queen shares the things she wishes she knew before hopping into her abroad experience in Stockholm, Sweden.  

The Effects of Culture Shock
I am currently at predominantly white institution (PWI) in the U.S. and figured this environment would help me transition into a white-dominated society such as Stockholm. I quickly realized that this was not the case, and found myself dealing with the effects of culture shock longer than anticipated. From the mid-day fikas, to the speed-walking through the metro stations, I found that I had to adjust almost all aspects of living in regards to what I thought I knew about this part of the world.  

Perception of Race
Typically, in the United States, “Black” is the first label on my list of identities in which I have learned to navigate the world and what others use to shape their perspectives. Culturally within Sweden, there is this emphasis of literal “colorblindness” when it comes to race. One of the most prevalent, and physical aspects of my identity, was ultimately invisible. There is an active and constant push towards sameness, and equality (not equity) in the context of a social welfare state. 

Culturally within Sweden, there is this emphasis of literal ‘colorblindness’ when it comes to race. One of the most prevalent and physical aspects of my identity was ultimately invisible.

When looking back at Sweden’s history, superciliously, this notion makes sense. However, this colorblindness becomes troublesome when attempting to research the lives and experiences of Afro-Swedes and Blackness in general within Stockholm, as there was no data specifically pertaining to race. Instead, I had to view other factors that are often related to racial aspects, such as living areas or socioeconomic status. Still, I found this data to not be completely accurate and frustrating when attempting to gain a fuller picture of the lives of POC within Stockholm. 

One of the perks of living in a city is that there are organizations for just about any kind of interest. There were two activities in which I committed that helped me feel a sense of community outside of the DIS sphere. The first was Altar Space, which has “private wellness classes & events for Black Womxn designed to nurture well-being through affirmation & community”. I was able to go to both a yoga session and private movie night, and met really interesting individuals who took the time to ask me about my experience in Stockholm as well as tell me about theirs. I also traveled to the English Bookshop often, first looking for books, and I discovered that they had book club meetings that I could attend. It was another cool way for me to meet Swedes, while discussing topics I was interested in! 

Books Library” by Suzy Hazelwood is marked with CC0 1.0

I highly suggest exploring what Stockholm and the neighboring cities have to offer, and I was happy to find community in other spaces that shared my interests. With this adjustment, I also found it helpful to consume media that centered on the Black experience. I highly recommend reading the novel In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a DIS professor! She came to speak to DIS students this past semester about her process in releasing the novel and the importance of having representation in spaces like Sweden. This book in particular helped validate a lot of the experiences I had while living abroad, which I was extremely thankful for, and believe anyone who comes to study here must get their hands on the book. 

Simultaneous Adjustment to Swedish & American Culture
When making the transition from the United States to Sweden, I was preparing myself for only the initial moment of the culture shock of being in a new country. One thing I did not think much about was the adjustment period of learning customs, behaviors, and norms of peers from across America (especially after a year-long lockdown with limited travel). Unintentionally, I clung to the label of “American”, thinking that this would cover all of our slight differences, and when it did not, I often felt more isolated than before. I thought that this label would act as a barrier and if I never felt acclimated to the Swedish lifestyle, I would have peers from the U.S. who would relate to these emotions. However, I quickly realized that this American identity meant lesser to some of my peers who had the desire to fully assimilate into Swedish culture.

I found comfort in the bi-monthly meetings of the Diverse Identities Club

There were students whose goal was to “pass as a Swede” when walking down the streets of Stockholm, which was not something I could do or even attempt to get away with. I found comfort in the bi-monthly meetings of the Diverse Identities Club (DIC). This was a space designed for non-white students to discuss, vent, and relate our experiences in Stockholm, and how they differ from our peers. Our meeting ranged from sit-down discussions in a classroom to homecooked meals in DIS housing. This flexibility and structure of the meetings led to my confidence growing throughout the semester, which positively shaped my overall DIS experience. 

Swedish Norms and Customs
Before traveling abroad, I had watched a couple of videos and documentaries about the Swedish lifestyle, but found that living is an entirely different matter. There were a couple of behavioral norms that I picked up on quickly, like only standing on the right side of the escalator unless I am moving, or absolutely no talking to the person next to you on the train.

One thing that I noticed when talking to peers is that oftentimes, Swedes won’t open up to you first, but once that initial staged of awkwardness is passed, friendships blossom. My Visiting Host family was a perfect example of this Swedish experience.  My first time at their home, we made Swedish pancakes for dinner, talked in depth about how our school systems differ, and I listened as they told funny family stories. I always felt appreciated and loved our outings for family fika! I feel that having a Visiting Host family allows for an amazing opportunity to have a safety net to learn about Swedish culture while also being around people who are invested in your growth. I adored my Visiting Host family and feel as though it was a highlight of my experience in Sweden and I would encourage every DIS student to apply to be involved. 

Maintain Support System from Home
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of maintaining a purposeful and consistent connection with home. Whenever I was feeling especially distant, I made sure to contact friends and family from home to keep them updated, as well as make use of university resources intended to help students adjust to new environments. These connections are here for a reason, and I wish I had taken advantage of them earlier on in my abroad experience. With this in mind, if you are close to your family and have friends you want to keep in contact with, do so!

I would not suggest completely cutting off your life from the U.S., though also recognize that life is moving for everybody. Even weekly updates were enough for me to process my Stockholm experience and gave me something to look forward to during those more difficult times. Whatsapp soon became my best friend and whenever I had Wi-Fi, I was on a call. 

A Sense of Independence
Sweden was quite an adjustment for me and I applaud you for taking on this commitment. One of the most important things that I will take back with me from my experience abroad is my overall sense of independence. I was able to explore and travel a city in a way I never imagined. I have become even more secure in my identities, and my courses at DIS have shown me that I am on the right path academically, personally, and professionally. I cannot wait for the chance to travel abroad once more because I know I will be able to handle all that might be thrown my way.  

I wish you well in your endeavors! If you want to talk or have any remaining questions, feel free to contact me at my email:

More about DIS

>> Diversity Resources: Stockholm

>> Diversity Resources: Copenhagen

>> Take a look at all the semester courses at DIS Copenhagen

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