Studying Abroad as a First-Generation, Low-Income College Student

One of the greatest experiences of being in college is the opportunity to study abroad. As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) major, I thought I would not have the chance to study abroad since our curriculums are more rigorous and restricted. Also, as a low-income and first-generation college student, I wasn’t aware of the resources that were available to help make study abroad possible for me. I had essentially lost any hope that I would be able to leave our campus until I graduated. At the end of my junior year, however, I learned that studying abroad was not just a dream, but it could become a reality. I had gone to a study abroad informational session hosted by my campus’s QuestBridge Scholars and saw the resources that were available for me to study abroad and how to navigate financial aid to make it possible. This info session lit a spark in me that changed the course of my life, not even exaggerating.

Side Note: If you aren’t aware of what QuestBridge is, it’s an organization that connects first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students to prestigious universities in an attempt to make these competitive colleges more accessible to our demographic. I am a QuestBridge Scholar, as well, and being a part of this community on campus has provided me with many of the resources I needed to have a smoother transition into college.

Another Side Note: Because I attend Northwestern University, I can only speak about the experiences I’ve had while here. Every school is different and could have other types of resources in place that I may not know about. If you’re interested in seeing what is available at your institution, you should look for advisors on campus who know where to send you to find this information.

Finding the Right Program

I looked through many of my school’s affiliated programs to see if I could find one that worked. It was very stressful for me because my options were greatly limited (due to GPA restrictions). I stumbled upon one, though, that seemed to be the perfect match for me. This program is called Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation with the School for International Training (SIT). As the title implies, it is a program more geared towards STEM majors and, in particular, environmental science and/or biology majors. This was the perfect program for me because as an environmental science major, I could use the courses in this program to count towards my degree at Northwestern. Being able to find a study abroad program that offered courses for my major was the biggest challenge for me, but I’m so fortunate that I stumbled onto this one.

Also, with this program, the costs of personal travel were lowered a lot because they took you to see some of the amazing sites in Ecuador, so you didn’t have to pay extra for that! They took us to cloud forests, the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos Islands!

I’m also really excited to announce that I will be studying abroad (again!!!) this upcoming June in Costa Rica. Although I am a senior and am on track to graduate, I wanted to try my hand at studying abroad one last time since I loved the experience so much the first time. Northwestern offers summer study abroad programs through the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI). This organization is run on campus and is very considerate towards FGLI students. I chose to visit Costa Rica because it is another tropical country with high levels of biodiversity that would be a perfect fit for me since I’m interested in ecology and conservation work. While I don’t need the credit for anything, I just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to study abroad again. I’ll explain more about funding later on.

Don’t Go to Europe

Okay, maybe you can make study abroad work in Europe, but I found that studying abroad in Latin America is greatly cheaper than the costs of studying abroad in Europe. The food is much cheaper. You can easily find meals for about $5 in Ecuador and grocery shopping costs less too because they don’t tax necessities, like food. Transportation is crazy cheap, as well. I’m talking about two quarters to take a bus in the city and about $3 to take a 4-hour long bus ride! Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a steal to me. And hostels are super affordable, too. You can stay at a comfortable hostel for $11 or less a night! Now, you don’t really need to stay at a hostel unless you’re doing traveling outside of the program, but it doesn’t hurt to know that it’s so affordable to go out and explore.

If you don’t have enough Spanish background to study abroad in Latin America, then you can try Asia or Africa, too. The cost of living is also much cheaper (typically) in these continents than living in the United States so it can help lower unexpected costs greatly.

Also, to be blunt, everyone goes to Europe. It can be fun to go somewhere that most people don’t think about visiting right away, like Ecuador!

Navigating Financial Aid

This is a big topic that makes everyone go “oof.” Financial aid can be very tricky, and it will clearly differ with whichever school you attend. I’m going to be 100% transparent with my financial aid situation so that you can better understand how to navigate your own system. In my case, Northwestern essentially covers my tuition and room and board. I do have student loans from my first two years here, but I learned that I could save a lot more money by living off-campus and don’t need to take out any more loans.

What I learned from that info session is that Northwestern essentially pays for sponsored and affiliated study abroad programs (to an extent). To be more precise, Northwestern will only pay as much as they would have if you were attending a regular term there. For my program with SIT, the tuition cost slightly less than a term at Northwestern and that money saved came back to me as a “refund.” This extra cash is deposited to my bank account and helped cover the miscellaneous costs of living while I was abroad.

Money will obviously be the determining factor in whether or not low-income students can study abroad. I always recommend talking to your financial aid department or any specific resources on campus for low-income students to help understand the financial aid situation with studying abroad.

Scholarships

The first place you should look for funding (outside of your institution) is the program itself. Many study abroad programs offer scholarships for students. I requested scholarship assistance with SIT, and they offered me $1,500 for the term. It doesn’t seem like much compared to the cost of the program, but it’s better than nothing. If the program you are looking at offers scholarships, you should definitely apply to those. These programs want to make these experiences more accessible so they will try their best to accommodate you.

In terms of getting funding for my second study abroad experience with GESI, I was a little more anxious about this one because I will have used up my allotted 12 terms of financial aid. You may not understand what I’m talking about right now. Essentially, Northwestern offers each student on financial aid a “maximum” of 12 terms of financial aid (we have three terms per school year). That’s enough to cover four years of undergrad, but there are always ways to request for more aid. It’s all a case-by-case scenario. Either way, I knew that I could not reach out to them to ask for more aid, so the entire program would have to be funded elsewhere. Thankfully, GESI has its own funding and is very considerate of its FGLI applicants, so I thought it would be the perfect fit for me.

I applied to GESI early so that I had a better chance of getting matched with my preferred location and of getting the costs paid for through the program. This strategy worked out because GESI was able to provide me with a full scholarship that covers the entire cost of studying abroad in Costa Rica (including the flights), which I am beyond grateful for. I’m not sure how much money they have to give out for students, but the overall message from this experience is to know what you want and apply as early as you can. This shows determination and passion and you’ll also have more resources available to help you out and more time to figure out any underlying situations.

I didn’t look or apply to any other outside scholarships because I was fortunate enough to have it all covered by either financial aid or the program itself. However, I have heard a few names being thrown around frequently, especially the Gilman Scholarship. This scholarship pays for Pell-Grant eligible students to study abroad, aka low-income college students! I know that Northwestern really pushes this scholarship on its students, so I’m going to push it, too, because it can help greatly cover the cost of study abroad.

There are also many other scholarships that are trying to connect FGLI students with study abroad opportunities so it’s just a matter of searching the web until you find them. You can try looking for scholarships that focus on other specific identity groups, too, such as race and ethnicity.


I’m so fortunate to have been granted the opportunity to study abroad in a place as magical as Ecuador, but I’ve been even more blessed by the chance to study abroad again in Costa Rica! I could have never imagined that I would be able to visit all of these amazing countries as a low-income student, but I’m eternally grateful for these life-changing experiences and want to help make this possible for others by sharing how I made this happen for me. Being low-income and first-generation is definitely a barrier to many opportunities, but with a little extra effort and determination, you can find the help to make your wildest dreams come true. And I’m not saying that I represent the entire FGLI student population (because I definitely do not), but if there was a chance that I could make study abroad happen for me, maybe that could spark others to go out and do the same.

If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to me because I definitely did not cover all the details that I thought were a bit too overkill to explain, such as the pre-departure costs, passports, immunizations, etc. If you do want to hear more about these details, comment down below and I can update this post. Anyhow, I wish you the best in life and good luck! GO STUDY ABROAD, FRIENDS!

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