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How Studying Abroad in Prague Helped Shape My Identity

April 16, 2024
by Priya Gulati

How My Time Studying Abroad Led to Learning More About My Identity 

I had the privilege of studying abroad in Prague during the spring semester of my junior year. My time abroad in Prague was so transformative for my identity in so many ways, and I’m so grateful for this experience. I learned how to appreciate other identities and cultures, and to accept my own identity.  

Differences in Identity 

Before studying abroad, it was mentioned during orientation at my home university that European countries view culture differently than we do in the U.S. Lots of European countries are rather homogenous, with their populations typically made up of only people native to that country. Because of this, many countries aren’t particularly accepting of ethnicities different from those most prevalent in that area. The Czech Republic is a special example of this, having been under Soviet Communist rule until the early 1990s, which is very recent. Since the country was under communist rule, they’re known to have fewer immigrants and residents who are racially or ethnically different from Czechs. Knowing this, I was worried that as someone who didn’t look like I was native to the Czech Republic, that I’d look out of place.

A group of study abroad students posing for a picture

My roommates and I at the castle our first weekend in Prague, this is one of Prague’s most famous landmarks and one of my favorite views.

During our orientation the leaders assured us that we’d all feel welcome and comfortable, but I still was a bit unsure. I knew that the best way to get myself to feel comfortable in the city in all aspects was to throw myself into life in Prague. I felt more and more comfortable as I spent more time exploring Prague and meeting others, but I could tell it’d take some time.  

A group of people sitting on grass in a park

This photo is from the park by my apartment, sometimes I went by myself to read or listen to a podcast, or my roommates came with to play Spikeball or sit in the beer garden.

How CEA CAPA Classes Helped Me Better Understand Identity 

One of the ways that I started to better understand identity in the Czech Republic and how that affected my own identity was through one of my CEA CAPA classes. I was fortunate enough to take a class at the CEA CAPA Study Center called Democracy in the Czech Republic. In this class I learned about the evolution of Czech government as well as Czech public opinion throughout the Czech Republic’s tumultuous history. Our weekly class meetings were supplemented with field trips to the Museum of Communism and the Czech Parliament. Both field trips allowed me to see identity in the Czech Republic better.

A study abroad student standing in front of a large building

On my first (of many) trips to Prague Castle!

What I originally thought was an ethnically homogenous country turned out to be a lot more diverse than I expected. I learned that there are members of the Czech Parliament of other ethnicities, and that country is home to many more minorities than I anticipated. Understanding how the Czech Republic is home to other ethnicities helped me to better accept my identity in this foreign place.  

Other Cultures in the Czech Republic 

Something that surprised me about Prague is that there’s a large population of people who are of Vietnamese descent. It was explained during orientation that while the Czech Republic was under communist rule, Vietnamese people saw parallels between the two countries, as they’re a socialist nation. Thus, many Vietnamese people immigrated to the Czech Republic and since then have become the third largest minority in the country. I was surprised to hear that this was the case, but it put me more at ease to know I’d see other people around Prague of Asian descent. As I learned the city better, it was interesting to see how Czech culture and Vietnamese culture became intertwined.

For example, on almost every street corner is Potraviny, which is a small convenience store. My roommates and I frequented the one down the street from us for last minute groceries and late-night snacks. The owner of the Potraviny on our corner was Vietnamese, and this specific store carried lots of Vietnamese food. We tried all different types of prepared noodles and some Vietnamese snacks in addition to Czech ones. Having that little store down the street from us allowed me to experience two distinct cultures at once, both of which I came to associate as local. 

A group of study abroad students posing for a photo

With all of our new friends in Letna Park on our last night in Prague.

Before going abroad, I was extremely worried that I wouldn’t find my place as someone who didn’t look like a local. In Prague, I found the opposite. I was greeted with an extremely welcoming society, and never felt that I stuck out because I didn’t have the same skin color as natives of the country. I made friends abroad with locals who worked at the coffee shop down the street, with Czech students at my school, and so many more. I never felt that my identity was a barrier to creating meaningful connections with those around me.

A dog lying on the floor of a restaurant

This was the coffee shop around the corner from my apartment where I made friends with the employees. They always let dogs inside - this one was so well-behaved!

Making those connections helped me better understand the city, its culture, and my own identity. To those of you planning to study abroad who might be worried about how your identity fits into the country you’ll be studying in, it’s normal to be scared.  Instead of letting your worry get the best of you, try to seek out opportunities to learn and to challenge yourself. The more you learn about the city around you, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and hopefully it’ll allow you learn as much about yourself as I did. 

Priya Gulati is the Spring 2023 Alumni Ambassador in Prague, Czech Republic, and is currently studying at University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
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