Let me start by saying that I am a first-generation college student who grew up in poverty. I have also struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life. At one point, I started failing classes and had to drop out of college for a year and a half. Studying abroad has always been one of my dreams. But, I never really thought it would be possible for a person like me.
I was very wrong. I made it past all the things that tried to get between me and study abroad, and you can too. It takes a lot of work and time, but I promise that it will be worth it in the end. Here are a few tips that I used to help on the path to studying abroad.
Being a First-Generation Student
The biggest struggle I had as a first-generation student was my lack of information. Everyone around me seemed to know more than I did about college and studying abroad. It took me longer to figure out how and where I wanted to study abroad, because I was starting from scratch. The key to getting past this lies in the study abroad office at your school. There will be advisors you can talk to about all your questions.
My school also had peer advisors who had recently returned from study abroad, so the experience was fresh in their minds. Both the professional and peer advisors were very useful. The professional advisors had logistical information, while the peer advisors could help paint a picture of what studying abroad would be like socially and academically. Colleges usually have a list of approved study abroad programs. Both kinds of advisors can give you detailed information about those programs and the application process.
Others have done it before you
I also faced a lot of fear of the unknown. For first-generation college students, just being at college can be intimidating. There is a big mindset of ‘I just have to get through college’ that makes it hard to get yourself out of your comfort zone. Studying abroad felt like a huge leap, and I was scared that I would crash and fall if I tried to do it. Talking to people about my fears really helped.
Try to find other first-generation college students who have studied abroad and hear their stories. A good place to look is IFSA’s Unpacked blog, which has a whole section of posts written by first-generation students studying abroad. The more you talk about it and hear how other people did it, the less unknown the experience will be and the fear can go away. You might always be a bit nervous, but don’t let it get in the way of what you really want to do.
Affording Study Abroad
The first place to start figuring this part out is the financial aid office at your school. Many kinds of financial aid can be used for study abroad, including federal loans and the Pell Grant. Your school might also have study abroad scholarships that you can apply to. Applying for outside scholarships is the next step. One of the main ones you should investigate is the Gilman Scholarship, which is specifically for students who have the Pell Grant. There are hundreds of scholarships out there. If you have trouble searching for them both your financial aid advisor and study abroad advisor should be able to help.
Your study abroad provider may also offer scholarships for study abroad. I received IFSA’s First Generation College Student scholarship, which paid for the airfare both to and from my study abroad program. Some scholarships may require you to do things like write blog posts or essays while you are abroad. The ones that require writing usually cover a large chunk of your financial burden, making it well worth it.
Another option for paying for study abroad is crowdfunding. Fundmytravel is a popular one for study abroad students and was recommended to me by my study abroad advisor. You set up an account and a funding goal, then share it on social media sites so people can donate.
I tried to save enough money to cover the cost of study abroad after my financial aid was applied. This meant, budgeting for my bills, food, some leisure money, and putting the rest of my money into a savings account. I did this for about a year and was able to save around $3000 dollars from my job and extra financial aid. It took a lot of willpower and forced me to live a frugal lifestyle, but now that I am in England, I know that it was all worth it.
Mental health was what I was most afraid of before studying abroad. My mental health has dragged me down before, and I didn’t want to repeat that. I felt better once I learned that I could take my antidepressants abroad. It also helped that I had the option of getting counseling abroad if I needed it. To alleviate worries about your mental health, you should consider three things. First, find a program where counseling abroad will be an option. Second, talk to your doctor about what you can do to stay mentally healthy abroad. Third, ask your doctor how to bring your prescription medications with you.
The expected depression and anxiety spike never happened in England. Traveling and seeing new things helped shove my mental health problems to the back of my mind. Between my study abroad advisors back home and the people I met on my first day abroad, I felt like I had a good support group who could help me through problems if they came up.
My IFSA program advisor was especially helpful. She sent me newsletters that covered all the things I would need to know leading up to my study abroad experience . We also discussed mental health treatment options I would have while abroad. I know that if I do have a mental health problem while I am in England, I will be able to talk to IFSA staff to figure out what I need to do to get through it.
Moral of the Story
Being a first-generation college student can make studying abroad feel like an impossible dream. You will face a lot of challenges. Some might include financial challenges, mental health problems, and lack of knowledge. I hope this blog helps alleviate some of your fears and get around these problems. All the information and resources you need are out there, you just have to find them. Remember, you are not alone, and you can do this!
Trenity Norton is a Psychology major at Portland State University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Sussex in England in Summer 2019. She is a recipient of the IFSA First Generation College Student scholarship.