By Monay Threats-McNeil
Many of us hear stories about how their friend travelled toVenezuelato help build houses for underprivileged families. Or maybe we’ve heard about the person who went toItalyto study paintings. For low-income college students, there stories tend to cause a lot of eye-rolling and an internal “I wish…” First generation and/or low-income college students tend to be under the impression that getting through college is enough of an accomplishment, that studying abroad is reserved for richer college students whose parents can pay for everything. At least, that’s what I believed. There was no way in hell I could go overseas without, at the very least, procuring more debt. All fears aside, my wanderlust was so strong that I took a leap and registered for a study abroad program. Since I went through tons of ups and downs while trying to get there, I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I learned.
Try and decide that you want to study abroad as early as possible.
I know it might be hard to envision where the plane you will soon be taking is going to land, but try to figure out your destination as soon as possible. This is important mostly because of scholarship deadlines. If your think you are going to be heading overseas with scholarship money in your pocket, think again, most scholarships cover the next actual school year. Also, if you figure out where you want to be ahead of time, you will have more time to gather funds, organize yourself, and make sure all paperwork is done and turned in.
Make time to conference with your advisor, the director of study abroad, financial aid, your parents, and anyone else who need to know that you are going abroad.
It’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page. As a low-income college student, it is important to practice self-agency. Get in those offices, start talking to people, and start figuring out your options. It’s important to make sure you understand all of the paperwork involved, what your obligations are and what’s involved in the process. It you assume that your parents cannot provide any financial support, sit down and talk to them about it; even if they can’t fund your whole trip (which may make them feel awful) maybe they can help you with a fee or two, which can take some weight off of your shoulders and give them a deeper sense of investment in your dreams.
Sit yourself down and organize paper work, make to-do lists, etc.
One of the biggest helpers to getting ready to study abroad is getting yourself organized. Try to break down each step of the process into bits that can be tackled each day. Need a passport? Maybe Thursday of this week is the perfect time to go get it.
Be prepared to trade free time for work.
You may have to pick up a job or two, or work more hours, or buy less Chinese food in order to save up for your trip. It might suck that you can’t buy that fancy new gadget or that new shirt, but hey, pretty soon you’ll be spending all that long-saved money overseas. It’ll be worth holding off on all that typical college splurging, so keep the end in mind. What’s better, a scarf from your local mall’s H&M, or a scarf from a street vendor inParis?
Keep your grades up.
I guess this may seem obvious, but it really is worth mentioning. Having low grades could result in loss of eligibility for not only scholarships, but also for some study abroad classes. With 3 classes and 3 jobs last semester, I managed to get a 2.9. I’d say that keeping your GPA above 2.7 in any case, is a good idea.
Get finances in order.
This might seem like the most obvious point, but it’s one of the most important. Right after you decide where you are going to go, you should start looking into gathering the funds to get there. Start a fundraiser (there are websites that will help you do this, such as GoFundMe, which you can promote through Facebook). Try to pick up another work study job or two, and if your parents can afford it, ask them to put a small amount of money in your savings account each paycheck.
Make sure to explain your situation, not everyone understands and/or knows how to help you.
Many colleges don’t encounter college students who are paying their own bills and who are responsible for their own finances. As a result, they may not know how to offer you the support and information you need. I know a lot of people that I went to at my own college simply assumed that whatever mysterious bills that popped up would be handled and paid for by my parents and so they would fail to tell me what needed to get paid. I had to explain to almost everyone that these expenses would be paid for out of my own pocket. Eventually, someone helped me figure out what I needed to do to make things work.
Give yourself a break! Congratulate yourself!
Last, but not least, make sure to pat yourself on the back. You worked hard for this trip, you should be proud.