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Redefining Study Abroad for First-Gen Ethnic Minorities

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As the airport’s sliding doors opened and I felt the chill breeze caress my exhausted, yet excited self after a nonstop 14 hour flight, I began to think about the once-in-a-lifetime journey that was ahead of me. While I was admiring the scenery and imagining all of the thrilling experiences I would soon encounter, I remembered my parents expressing similar feelings as they recalled their journey to America. We were both entering what seemed like uncharted territory, not knowing what to expect or who we will meet. Yet our experiences were vastly different, and I realized I was fortunate enough not to be greeted with cleaning supplies, a lawnmower, or with “Get to work or you will be replaced”. Instead, I was greeted with “Kia Ora!”, which translates to “hello” in the indigeneous language of New Zealand, and many smiles from strangers or employees who knew this was my first time abroad. I always hope that one day my parents will also get to experience the beauty and wonders of going abroad.
The intersections between my identities made study abroad seem unattainable and only for those with respectable and privileged backgrounds. I would ask myself, “How can a first- generation, Mexican-American from a low-income household have the necessary resources and support to study on the other side of the world?”. I found myself justifying the exclusion of studying abroad as part of my college experience for the following reasons: unaffordability, lack of knowledge, lack of diversity and lack of support.

Once I overcame the obstacles of adjusting to the unfamiliar setting set by attending a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), I was instilled with curiosity about study abroad when another Latino F&M student presented the jaw-dropping scenery and the ever-lasting friendships that studying abroad had provided to him. Mi Gente Latina – an organization on campus whose objective is to discuss topics and events related to the Latino community – had provided the opportunity for this student who had, at some point during his undergraduate career, studied abroad with IFSA ! “If others can do it, you can too!” was a quote he mentioned and stuck to me as it was a saying my mother always told me as a kid. I want to instill curiosity and hope in a similar fashion to demonstrate that anyone is able to study abroad regardless of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, or major!
During the Spring 2019 semester, I was fortunate enough to study abroad at the University of Otago which is situated in a small and remote city called Dunedin. Dunedin is located at the bottom tip of the south island in New Zealand which offered some jaw-dropping scenery that I will never forget!

Debunking misconceptions about unaffordability:

As a student from a low-income household, I became aware of the limitations on opportunities that require funding at a very young age. I had no experience or understanding of the concepts of investment and the importance of investing time and money on experiences throughout your educational career that will allow you to grow on an academic and personal level. I became aware of the strain on my parents for allowing me to pursue higher education at an out-of-state college and could not bear adding more to their plate if I ever considered studying abroad.
However, after reaching out to the International Center about my interest in studying abroad, I was astonished at the reassurance from the staff that financing study abroad should be the least of my concerns. I am fortunate enough to attend an institution that adopted a need- based financial aid policy, which means they provide enough financial aid for my family to afford college expenses. That being said, the financial aid I received surpassed the costs of studying abroad and I received a refund check that would be utilized to afford living expenses while abroad! Who would’ve thought? Certainly not me! In addition, there are many scholarship opportunities within IFSA that help cover traveling costs (such as the $500 Early Bird Flight Discount) and aiding those from underrepresented groups. Keep in mind, there are a vast selection of other scholarship opportunities, such as the Gates Scholarship and Boren Scholarship, that are not affiliated with IFSA but still help cover the tremendous costs of studying abroad!

Knowledge is Power:

For those that are first-generation students, applying for studying abroad will feel a lot like applying for college all over again. I became overwhelmed by the lack of information and resources that weren’t provided unless I looked for them. The fact that I was the first in my ENTIRE family to study abroad meant I had no clue as to what to expect or how to deal with some of the hardships that come with studying abroad. I’m here to tell you that it’s normal to experience all of these uncertainties. As the title entails, knowledge was the tool that allowed me to overcome these uncertainties and ensure that I felt comfortable with every decision that I was making.
But how exactly was I able to obtain all that knowledge? The IFSA staff! I appreciated the support system that IFSA provides for its students across the ENTIRE journey of studying abroad! At some point, I felt that I was overwhelming the IFSA staff with questions regarding visas, scholarships and resources. However, my IFSA program advisor ensured me that they wanted to help me through every step of this process in order to make it as easy and clear as possible. Without their support, I don’t think I would’ve had such a splendid time abroad! The same type of support can be said about the IFSA staff that are on-site. The constant check-ins throughout the semester were an amazing way to reflect about my personal growth and, at the same time, ask for assistance on anything that was concerning. For example, I was concerned about my lack of involvement in my community and participation in outdoor activities (both of which were my goals for studying abroad), and was advised to join the Trampling Club! Not only was this an amazing opportunity to experience some breath-taking hikes, but also engage in a close-knit community with other students from diverse backgrounds! So don’t be shy and ask the IFSA staff about anything! There is no such thing as a dumb question!

Managing and Embracing Your Unique Identity:

Being in a completely new environment meant that I had more time to reflect on my identity and passions. I’ve always felt that my family and friends have shaped who I am and being completely away from that meant that I could explore new things that I’ve never had the opportunity to do! One of the struggles while studying abroad is thinking about how you will be perceived by others. The sad truth about studying abroad is the lack of diversity. You begin to wonder about your ability to form relationships and connect with those you have nothing in common with.
But as my study abroad journey began, I quickly realized the importance of embracing my identity as a First-Generation Mexican-American. Because I would stumble into the occasional “How do you say ‘Goodbye’ in Mexican?” (which is not possible as Mexican is not a language) or even “What does First-Generation even mean?”, it became evident to me the necessity to inform and correct others. Not only did this allow me to form closer relationships with those who learned from their mistakes, but I also got the opportunity to reflect about my identity to an extent I’ve never done before. I don’t usually have to explain how my culture and beliefs shape my experiences, and I think that encouraged me to retrace my roots and learn about my ancestors!
Overall, I do not think my identities limited or lessened my study abroad experience. If anything, I’ve learned to embrace them as a way of discovering hidden gems about myself! I think overcoming the intimidating process of studying abroad and becoming what I believe to be the best version of myself is a testament of the doors and opportunities my parents have believed that education will provide for us. It’s not easy to break these barriers, but it is worth every sweat, tear, and headache because it proves the worthiness of my parent’s sacrifices. I do this for them, for my community, and for the readers who I hope will be taking the next steps for a life-changing journey after reading this blog post!

Uzziel Sanchez is a Mathematics major at Franklin and Marshall College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in Spring 2019.