Identity & Cancel Culture in a Mexican Study Abroad Context: A Case Study

This article will discuss case study research about intercultural communication and conflict in a small study abroad program in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Along with the increase in the inclusion of marginalized voices in the US and Western academia, identity politics have increased in importance on US college campuses. However, identity and identity politics look very different in the Global South. In this research, I examined a semester-long study abroad program based in Mexico whose participants included 10 students of diverse racial identities from the US. My research goal was to understand the way that identity politics and “cancel culture” have influenced how US students treat each other and members of host cultures in situations of cultural clash. I also aimed to understand how educational interventions can best attain positive intercultural exchanges. This research was conducted through a series of student interviews, surveys, and program observations. Through this limited case study, we can begin to explore how to support US students from all backgrounds to approach study abroad in a way that supports their learning while maintaining dignity for their unique identities.


  • Ari Nicholson, International Resident Assistant, Augsburg University Center for Global Education and Experience


Cuernavaca, Mexico - We were crowded in a circle under the shade of a gigantic tree, birds singing. Mexican students and students from our US study abroad program, coming together to discuss stereotypes. The exchange leaders had tasked the group of Mexican students with leading some activities to stimulate cross-cultural sharing of experiences and feelings around stereotypes. While discussing stereotypes one Mexican student performed the “slanted-eye gesture” to explain stereotypes of Asians. The US students in the room held their breath while the Mexicans listened on without any idea that a major faux pas had been committed. On the bus ride back to our study abroad center, the students ranted about how inappropriate it was to do that gesture and all of the various other politically incorrect and offensive things that the Mexican students had done during our time together. Various weeks went by with interventions by staff to try to both educate the Mexican students on racial and cultural norms in the US, as well as encourage the students from the US to have empathy and understanding for cultural differences about what is offensive. However, for these students from the US, what the Mexican students had done was unforgivable. The exchange leaders ended up cutting the weekly set of sessions short. In essence, our cultural exchange had been literally and figuratively canceled.

From this place, I recognized the need to conduct a study of cancel culture and identity among young liberal students from the US studying abroad. Cancel culture can be enacted in many ways – from public “canceling” of problematic celebrities such as JK Rowling or Kanye West on social media to smaller conflicts on college campuses between students and teachers, or even between just students themselves. At best, “canceling” someone can be an effort to suppress prejudiced rhetoric. At worst it can be its own version of bullying. In this article, I will be focusing on the ways that “canceling” trickles into the everyday lives of our students while studying abroad, affecting their learning and relationships with each other and the host culture. Additionally, I aim to discuss how to approach conversations around the differences between identity and political correctness in the US versus Mexico. My research sought to explore ways to allow for space for the trauma of racism, sexism, and homophobia that our students might bring from the US while simultaneously supporting our students to avoid judging a host culture and evade the risk of becoming cultural colonizers.


Participants in the study included seven students participating in a semester-long study abroad program in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Three methods of data collection were used. Participants were asked to engage in two hour-long interviews, one at the start of the semester and one at the end. Participants were additionally asked to complete two identical online surveys, also at the start and end of the semester. Finally, students were observed throughout their classes and program experiences during the semester.

While we had previously included programming on intercultural communication, for this semester we refined and sharpened our focus. We required (with strict enforcement) that students complete part of the AFS Global Competency Certificate (GCC) before arrival to Mexico, along with listening to a podcast about cancel culture. We also revamped our orientation week, adding a session on cancel culture and doubling the time we normally spent on norm-setting. Additionally, we reached advanced topics in the GCC (such as the DIVE method) much more quickly, spending more time focusing on these tools. We lightened the load on our cultural exchange by shifting our focus to relationship-building and away from content. Also, we included several Mexican presenters to share about their indigenous forms of justice-seeking and conflict resolution.

Results & Discussion

The results of the study homed in on three areas of understanding: an increase in student self-knowledge; de-centering US methods of understanding identity; and the need to support students in healing their trauma.

The vast majority of student responses to survey questions changed from the start of the semester to the end. However, there was very little trend in how the survey responses shifted. Through this, we can see that there was a refining of each student's own self-knowledge about how they react to conflict. During the interviews, there was a marked change in the language that students used to discuss conflict. Following the semester, students were better able to describe conflict in which they had taken part, using language such as conflict style, indirect conflict, and direct conflict. Students attributed this change to the GCC and intercultural communication class. All students interviewed stated that these frameworks helped them to be more compassionate and patient, even when under the strain of conflict.

Leaving the US context can help students see new ways of imagining the world and themselves, which is sometimes comforting and sometimes triggering. A theme during my research observations and interviews was the definition of Latino: Who is allowed to define themselves as Latino? Does that make them a person of color? What does that mean when we encounter Mexicans of all colors and levels of privilege in Mexico (many of whom do not utilize the concept of being a “person of color” or “white”)? As students are stretched between two cultures - their cohort from the US and Mexican culture - tensions arise quickly. In the US, identity politics is part of what defines what is socially “correct” and “incorrect.” As this was challenged in a new context, some participants stretched to find new identities, while others broke down.

As educators, it is our responsibility to support students to stretch, even as it may be uncomfortable. But what do we do when one student may stretch in a situation and a different student may break down? Throughout my research, participants often discussed painful experiences in their past that some eventually attributed to the source of their breakdown during conflict. This took place among students of all levels of privilege - as complicated as that definition can become. This trauma that students bring from their past experiences is more likely to arise in moments of stretch. Rather than aiming to avoid it, we as educators need to seek ways for students to heal from their trauma.


There are many threats to students of diverse identities, both at home and abroad. However, not everything that a student may perceive as a threat may be one. Through discussing methods of intercultural communication, encouraging students to de-center their US perspectives, and supporting students to heal their traumas, students can begin to discern what is truly a threat, what is a difference of culture, and what may fall in between. By encouraging students to suspend judgment and refrain from “canceling” a host culture, or even their fellow US students, we can support students to become global citizens and effective intercultural communicators.

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