This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Study abroad is on the rise in the U.S. and around the world. Yet, studying abroad is not one of the first opportunities that most first-generation students think about when entering college. For many reasons, students may discount the idea as something reserved for the privileged few. Other doubts and questions may prevent students moving forward: What is the application process like? Do I have to speak another language? How can I study abroad and still graduate on time? Isn’t study abroad too expensive for me?
What first-generation students need to know is that given the many resources at your disposal, you should never discount this kind of life-changing experience. Study abroad is one of the most enriching and unique experiences you can ever have, and it will help you stand out from your peers once you begin your job search or consider graduate school options.
How Study Abroad Pays Off
Much of the college experience is about building your skill set and facing your fears. Major hiring companies are looking for employees with global competence and cross-cultural understanding. You can only gain these skills by spending time immersed in another culture. Students who study abroad are more marketable after college and even tend to earn more, according to an IES Abroad survey. Some studies have even indicated that students who study abroad experience an increase in creative problem-solving skills when compared to their peers who stay home. So, study abroad will pay off in the long run by giving you the ability to be a flexible, independent thinker who can work well with different kinds of people.
Funding Your Study Abroad Experience
But, how do students pay for study abroad? First-generation students typically assume that they cannot study abroad due to finances; however, with the proper planning, you will find that the funding is out there. Start with your college or university’s study abroad office. There you can find out whether your college allows financial aid to travel with you to your study abroad program of choice. In many instances, your aid will transfer. At a minimum, most financial aid offices have the ability to increase your loan aid. Given the boost you can expect in the job market if you have studied abroad, I would argue that taking out a small loan to make study abroad a reality is worth it.
Some colleges even offer special funding to support study abroad. Many times, alumni donors who benefited from study abroad are happy to give back to their alma maters so that future generations can study abroad with less economic burden. Ask your study abroad office or financial aid office if you can apply for these funds or how you could be nominated to receive them.
Many first-generation students are also Pell Grant recipients. The Gilman Scholarship is federally funded and targets Pell recipients in order to diversify the population of U.S. students who study abroad; this includes increasing diversity across social class, race and even field of study. For example, minority students, first-generation students and science majors are all less likely to study abroad; for this reason, Gilman supports these students at a higher rate. If you are studying abroad in a country outside of Western Europe and learning a language, your chances of getting a Gilman are even better. Other scholarships with similar aims include those offered by the Foundation for Global Scholars, the Fund for Education Abroad and STA Travel.
Finally, study abroad programs’ providers are often perfect sources for finding additional funding. SIT (School for International Training), for example, will match your Pell Grant if you study abroad through one of their programs and IFSA-Butler offers study abroad scholarships specifically for first-generation students. IES, CIEE, DIS, SFS and other popular study abroad program providers have similar programs based on financial need.
Students can also make study abroad affordable by choosing wisely. Some programs include everything (like field trips and homestays), which that means all of your food (home cooked meals, no less) is included, while others include very little. Keep in mind that the currency exchange rate can make a big difference in your ability to pay for everyday needs.
Study Abroad That Meets Your Goals
Some first-generation students worry about losing focus on their careers while studying abroad. Actually, many study abroad programs are now career-focused. Study abroad used to mainly be about cultural immersion and acquiring a second language; however, while these programs still exist and are excellent choices, there are also many programs that are designed for students with a specific major or studying a specific field. You can focus on anything from math in Hungary to peace studies in Serbia!
In addition, more and more study abroad programs offer internships for credit. An internship in your field of choice is just another way that you can gain real-world experience while you study abroad. The choices now available to students are almost overwhelming. Your study abroad office will help you find the program that best matches your academic goals.
As a first-generation student, you have already had to be mature and independent to make it this far. You are, in fact, the ideal study abroad student! So, don’t let fear or misinformation stop you from exploring all of your options and opportunities. Push yourself to meet the challenge.