On a sunny Saturday morning, after a week of classes at the local university in Sydney, Australia, London Edwards-Johnson woke up and headed to her shift at Big Daddy’s Burger Bar, an American ‘50s-themed diner.
She greeted her co-workers, a friendly group who was always kind to her, even though she did not share their twangy Aussie accents. That day, they congratulated her on her pay raise, from minimum wage ($17.70 at the time) to a cool $22 an hour.
Edwards-Johnson worked some nights and weekends during the four months she spent in Sydney as a study abroad student. Thanks in part to her job, she was able to save up enough money to travel to places like Bali, Indonesia and New Zealand. But before she could even think about taking a vacation from Sydney, she had to think about basic necessities. Without her paycheck from the diner, Edwards-Johnson says, buying groceries would have been a challenge, let alone figuring out weekends and free time during her stay in Australia.
When one thinks of college students studying abroad, Edwards-Johnson’s experience is not normally what comes to mind. The archetype is a carefree 20-year-old gallivanting around the world, encountering the culture of a new country and beefing up their Instagram feed while taking full advantage of the more relaxed drinking laws and neglecting the “study” in “study abroad.” But for many students with high financial need who make the decision to study abroad, well, that experience can seem a world away.
Urban legend dictates that study abroad is inaccessible for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a belief that can stop some students in their tracks before they’ve even started.
“The message that study abroad is not affordable is probably causing some students to forgo or miss out on the opportunity before even considering it, simply because they heard somewhere that it was not ‘for them,’” says Northwestern Undergraduate Learning Abroad Adviser Francesca Miroballi.
Low-income students face many hurdles if they decide to study internationally. Program costs can surpass that of a term at a U.S. university. Unseen expenses arise while traveling and living in a different culture with a different currency. Students miss out on a steady source of income at home. But despite the challenges that studying in a different country can pose for students with high financial need, Northwestern and outside scholarship programs are working to change the perception that study abroad is only for those from privileged socioeconomic status.
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship from the Institute of International Education (IIE), sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is one such program. It provides scholarships to fund study and intern abroad programs for students from all over the country who receive federal Pell Grants. According to the program’s 2016 Evaluation Report, they awarded 2,799 scholarships during the 2014-2015 academic year, with 64 percent of Gilman Scholars representing ethnic minority groups. The national success rate for Gilman applicants is 27 percent, but for Northwestern students it is 47 percent, according to the Undergraduate Learning Abroad office. In fact, with 10 awards, Northwestern made the 2016-2017 list of top medium-sized U.S. universities that produce the most Gilman Scholars.
Now a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy, Edwards-Johnson has three study abroad programs under her belt. Thanks in part to the Gilman scholarship, her costs were completely covered for her first international experience, a summer spent with the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) working on a sustainable development project in Uganda after her freshman year. The Gilman Scholarship Program also led her to another opportunity that she never expected. “Gilman, when they get certain Black students who stand out to them, they forward your application,” she says. Her infectious smile grows wider as she recalls the moment. “So, randomly I got an email saying, ‘You have another scholarship from the Shawn Carter Foundation!’ And I was like, I didn’t even apply to this!” Yes, that Shawn Carter – although you might know him better by his stage name, Jay-Z.
“I feel like I was able to find solutions,” Edwards-Johnson says. “I’m pretty self-sufficient. I think there are a lot of resources out there – you just have to take advantage. It’s just about finding them and using them.”
For Medill senior Jacquelyn Guillen, family played a big role in her decision to study abroad in Madrid and complete her Journalism Residency in Johannesburg, South Africa during her junior year. “I would talk to my parents a lot,” Guillen says, “just to make sure it was financially feasible for us.” Guillen also made sure to talk to returnees, whom she found through Northwestern’s study abroad website and who gave valuable advice about what to expect from the programs she eventually chose.
Guillen had studied Spanish and joined a flamenco dance group in high school, so she was immediately drawn to Spanish-speaking countries during her study abroad search. She met frequently with an adviser and finally landed on a Northwestern-affiliated Boston University program in Madrid that she thought would be perfect for her – the only problem was that the program cost more than what she typically received for financial aid. Luckily, she was able to apply for a scholarship from BU that helped her cover the rest of the costs without having to take out a loan.
Another resource that Edwards-Johnson took advantage of was a pre-departure support program called Bridge Builder, offered by Study Abroad Financial Services at Northwestern. According to Manager Krista Buda Bethel, the program is available to students with the highest financial need. It helps them cover up-front costs like airfare, Visa fees and tuition deposits. In her spacious, airy office that has welcomed many students seeking such advice, Bethel explains: “You sit down with someone who’s familiar with the cost of your program, and you go over your specific costs and billing arrangements and budgeting,” which can be useful in easing fears and adjusting expectations before departure.
When students hop on planes and dive headfirst into life in a different country, they can encounter unexpected expenses that can be challenging for a student with very little financial flexibility. When Edwards-Johnson arrived at the airport for the first leg of her long flight to South Africa for her third study abroad experience, she was excited to do independent research in Durban. At check-in, however, she quickly realized that the airline did not cover her baggage – and she was not prepared to pay for it. She used her Target credit card to cover the fees. “I had to come out of pocket, like, $75,” she remembers. “I hadn’t even started yet. I didn’t think that my budget was going to come into effect until I got to the country at least. It threw me off guard.”
And even in the midst of the excitement after safely touching down in host countries, finances still weigh on many students’ minds. Before even beginning classes in Australia, Edwards-Johnson had to stock her barebones apartment in Sydney: spices, linens, pots and pans. Moving into her new home felt like a serious investment, even though she would be moving out in just a few months. “I remember the first day at the grocery store, my receipt was this long!” she says, stretching her arms as wide as they can go, as if she is about to lean in for a bear hug. “It was like $350 – something ridiculous like that.” As for Guillen, even more straightforward things like transportation could throw a wrench in her budget: she would often have to take a pricey cab home after a night out in Madrid, since the metro stopped running at 2 a.m.
For some students, study abroad can be the first time where they have to really budget their own money, Bethel says. They can be in danger of mismanaging their funds, especially if they receive a windfall of a financial aid refund at the start of their program. This issue lies in stretching that refund over a number of months. “Learning how to direct those funds appropriately is a challenge, and then add to that, you’re away from Northwestern, and living in a different culture and currency,” Bethel says.
Overcoming cultural differences, making new friends and learning a new language – these worries usually take priority for more financially stable students, but money is often first on lower-income students’ minds. One of the biggest challenges becomes balancing a more limited budget with the many tempting experiences abroad, from meals out to weekend sightseeing trips. And that hurdle can seem daunting when students compare their adventures with those of other students who seem to be running on unlimited funds.
Everyone has different resources and experiences abroad, and Edwards-Johnson was able to jet off to other countries for vacation and have fun while she was in Sydney. But she still found it hard to understand how other students were able to travel to exotic places every weekend. “I don’t know how they afforded to have anything, because they weren’t working,” she says. “Seeing them gone every single weekend, it’s like – I can’t.”
Guillen knew that many people in her program had planned more expensive excursions to Paris or Prague, and she accepted that there were certain places that were simply out of her price range. “I usually tried to find plane tickets that were under 100 euros,” she says. But like Edwards-Johnson, even though Guillen had to make tougher choices about her travel plans, she didn’t miss out on the wanderlust. “I ended up going to Lisbon, which was a really cheap flight, and I loved it,” Guillen says. “Everything there was really affordable, so I kind of got to go to low-key places like that and enjoy my time abroad.”
Guillen also looked for ways to supplement her budget while abroad, and she says BU had a list of resources to help make things easier: “If you didn’t come there with a huge budget, they suggested ways to get money.” For example, she says, many parents in Madrid were searching for tutors to teach their kids English.
From taking on jobs like tutoring or waiting tables at Big Daddy’s, students with tighter budgets often need to put in extra effort in order to navigate their study abroad experiences, but they say it’s all about being savvy and using the resources that are available to them, from the Undergraduate Learning Abroad office at Northwestern to outside scholarships like Gilman (and Jay-Z’s) to local job opportunities.
As she outlined the different steps she took to make the most of her three study abroad trips and fondly remembered her experiences, a glint of defiance entered Edwards-Johnson’s eye. “I really didn’t want my study abroad experiences to be a burden on my family at all. It’s already enough paying money here [at Northwestern]. They don’t need to be paying more for me to have this kind of luxury experience.”