How to Figure Out Study Abroad as a First-Gen College Student

This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.

As a child, I pored over world maps and dreamed about countries I hoped to someday visit. I always planned to study abroad in college and was delighted when I was accepted into Oberlin College’s London spring 1991 semester program.

Being a first-generation college student from a low-income family, I did not take this opportunity for granted. The experience marked the first time I traveled by plane and ventured further than a state away from Ohio. It opened my eyes to global travel and still guides my thirst for international adventure. I have since lived in four countries and have traveled in more than 30 others. As a professor at Hope College, I encourage students to consider international study in order to gain wider cultural experience while satisfying academic requirements.

A Growing Trend

A small number of students at American higher education institutions currently study abroad, but the percentage that do has slowly increased since the mid-1980s. Surveys by the Institute of International Education (IIE), a nonprofit educational and cultural exchange organization, indicated that 84,403 American students studied abroad in 1994-1995, while 273,996 American students studied abroad for credit during the 2010-2011 academic year.

While only about one percent of all students enrolled at higher education institutions in the U.S. studied abroad during the 2010-2011 school year, that’s not the whole story. An IIE survey found that about 14 percent of U.S. undergraduates have studied abroad for an academic year, semester, summer or intersession period at some point in their academic careers.

Benefits of Studying Abroad

Former IIE President and CEO Richard M. Krasno said that today’s students are becoming more receptive to studying abroad because they increasingly recognize that international experience and foreign language ability are employment assets. In addition, he says, many students encounter diverse cultures on their campuses, and are thus more open to international travel.

According to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), a non-profit organization for international educational professionals, there is a positive correlation between students who study abroad and higher grade point averages and degree completion rates. My academic experience supports this relationship: Studying abroad helped me better understand the cultures covered in my history and politics classes because I had visited these cultures. I made better connections between historical events and my critical thinking skills improved. Citing these benefits, many institutions now actively encourage or even require international study.

Making Study Abroad a Reality

Although studying abroad can have wide-ranging personal, academic and vocational benefits, the logistics of planning for an international experience is foreign terrain for many first-generation college students. The good news is that research and creative problem-solving skills can make studying abroad a reality.

When I discuss studying abroad with first-generation students, their first question is how will they pay for it. Families struggling to fund college expenses, or students whose education is solely financed through scholarships and/or loans, may view an international experience as financially unrealistic.

When initially considering options, students should search out a program according to their major, career interests, academic requirements and finances, They should first investigate international programs that are managed by their home institutions or programs operated by an international educational organization such as IES Abroad. Many American schools partner with organizations like IES Abroad, which offers 100 study abroad programs in 36 locations worldwide.

The Financial Aid Factor

Students should also research when and how they should apply for financial aid for study abroad. The benefit of studying through an in-house institutional or partner program during the academic year is that it is usually easier to configure the financial aid aspect: Those who participate in such programs may not have to do anything differently than they usually would when completing their annual financial aid application forms. Of course, financial aid may apply to an academic program outside these parameters, but students should consult their school’s study abroad and financial aid offices to find out.

Many students prefer to study abroad over the summer or a school intercession because they must take certain courses only at their home institution or they cannot risk getting behind. Students should carefully investigate such programs because their cost may not be included in academic-year financial aid packages. While loans can help to cover the costs these programs, securing a loan increases debt load after graduation. Thus, students should investigate if their school offers merit- or need-based scholarships for study abroad programs. High schools, civic organizations and campus organizations may also offer such scholarships.

Covering Expenses

Students and their families should also understand who will be responsible for everyday expenses during the study abroad experience. When I completed Oberlin’s program, we received a weekly allowance for groceries and public transportation, and round-trip airfare was partially covered. I was responsible for spending money for weekend travel and other personal expenses.

Students should consult their study abroad offices regarding how much to budget for incidental expenses when studying abroad for a semester, as costs differ from country to country. I encourage students to be creative in saving; my students have asked friends and family to sponsor them, held car washes and done odd jobs. To save for London, I watched professors’ pets during the summer and cleaned houses. It was not easy, but the savings added up over a year’s time. In addition to saving, American students may be able to work up to a set number of hours per week on a student visa in a host country; check with your study abroad office and chosen program to find out if this is an option for you.

Asking the Right Questions

In addition to researching costs, students should avoid disappointment by asking the right questions of their advisors, financial aid offices, study abroad offices and chosen international programs: ensure that credits earned abroad will transfer to the home institution and major; inquire about the program’s GPA requirements (if any); investigate all required and incidental costs (including meals and housing); and learn if the program is taught by American or international faculty, from the host institution or an outside company. What you discover will help you choose a reputable program that’s right for you. Finally, find out if the other students in the program will be primarily from the U.S. or from the host country.

The knowledge and life skills gained from studying abroad are priceless. Do the necessary research and plan for an international adventure–you never know where it might lead.