Study Abroad Without Being Rich
A Financial Aid Recipient’s Guide to International Study
By Susan L. Pugh
Don’t wait until you’re 60 to study abroad. That’s what will happen if you keep thinking like a financial aid recipient rather than remembering you are a talented student with an academic purpose. Study abroad, first and foremost, is an academic experience of a lifetime. Why not have it begin early in your life rather than later?
Your college is poised and ready to help you define the type of academic experience you would like to have and to help you determine where to have it. It may take a while to identify those who are available to help you, though, because international education offices tend to be small with few staff. Many do have websites, so that may be a place to begin. And, you can always contact an academic adviser or a language professor for assistance in your search. The international education office generally can direct you to faculty with academic experience abroad as well as to staff who have studied and visited the locations where they routinely send students. The office will also have a library of materials with details on the variety of study abroad opportunities.
As a financial aid recipient, it’s vital that you give yourself sufficient time to develop two plans: First, you’ll need an academic plan that includes international coursework integral to your academic program and an enrollment time frame that will allow you to finish your degree within your school’s standards for satisfactory academic progress. Then you need to work out a financial plan that will assure sufficient funds to finance the endeavor. The plan should be affordable and provide the best possible value.
An experienced study abroad adviser can review your academic record and goals and then make recommendations regarding the most appropriate programs to consider. It’s up to you to learn about these alternatives and determine the best match for you. Many of the schools and programs abroad also have websites to help you with your investigation.
Questions to Ask Yourself
• How are classes taught in that country? Are the classes themselves different in content or organizational structure from what you’re used to in the U.S.? Do these differences influence your decision to go there? Are any courses of particular interest or better fits with your current academic program than others? How final are your first selections and what are your course alternatives when you arrive on site?
• How big is the academic risk? Are courses taught in another language? Can you complete the coursework satisfactorily and make grades comparable to those you have earned in the U.S.? What will the academic competition be like in the classroom? Will most U.S. participants be at your academic level? Check your financial aid office’s standards for satisfactory academic progress to be sure your plans fit.
• What is the duration of the course work? Can you afford to leave your U.S. job for that amount of time? Can you leave your family? What about your lease or other obligations?
• When do you need to apply and when will you be notified of your acceptance? How does this time frame match the financial aid cycle? Do payments for the study abroad program match your financial aid payments? What are your financing alternatives in the interim?
• How much does the program cost? Is that cost reasonable for you? Are you sure it’s accurate? What does the cost include? Are there “extras” not included in the price? If so, what are they and are they really essential? Are most U.S. participants at your financial level?
If you are not an experienced, confident traveler who is comfortable in new environments you can still find a study abroad program that is right for you—as long as you have the motivation and proven academic performance to assure yourself that it will be a good financial investment. Otherwise, you’re not talking about study abroad—you’re talking about a road trip. Financial aid does not cover road trips. If you are a good student who simply lacks confidence, you may want to select a program of short duration for your first experience. A number of foreign schools actually have on-campus housing. This may help you feel more secure during your stay.
Some organizations specialize in providing personalized support services to students studying abroad—from making travel arrangements and meeting you at the airport to living near you on campus so you can have a convenient and supportive contact who is familiar with the country.
Examples of the larger, established study abroad services can be found at the following websites:
(list of Global Charter Members).
Doing it Right
You need to face the fact that many of the U.S. students go abroad with seemingly unlimited cash and don’t have to worry about cost. You do. They can wait until the last minute to decide where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do. You can’t. If someone else is making the financial arrangements for them, they may not have to worry about the logistics of getting there and back and unforeseen costs. But you do. You are pretty much on your own.
However, you can turn all of these potential negatives into actual positives because you will be more prepared for the trip. Here are some of the things you will know (in order of importance):
- The total cost of the program in comparison with similar study abroad opportunities.
- The academic value of the program in comparison with similar study abroad opportunities.
- The kind and extent of preparation and commitment required for you to be academically successful throughout the term.
- The extra costs accompanying cultural or social experiences on campus or for side trips during breaks—and where those costs yield the greatest value. You’ll know how to get the best for your money.
- Essential personal items how to procure them, pack them, and transport them. There will be essential academic items, too, and you’ll know those as well. All of the costs will yield the greatest value because of your careful planning. You’ll have the appropriate clothes for each occasion and always the right materials for your academic study.
One way you can make effective financial plans is to take advice from others who have traveled on a budget. Numerous travel books describe the actual advantages of traveling on limited funds. Students who have studied abroad in similar financial circumstances can offer valuable advice, including what not to do. It’s always wise to look at the exchange rate in the country as an indicator of general affordability.
You should apply for financial aid specifically to study abroad. Frequently the cost is higher than the standard on-campus study and you want to be sure that’s taken into consideration when your aid eligibility is determined. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to apply for scholarships available outside the aid office. Remember, the more difficult and time-consuming the scholarship application process, the fewer applicants and the greater chance you have for securing the award. A successful application takes time and effort, and a lot of Web-searching. Most financial aid offices have an early March deadline to apply for aid for the following summer and academic year. Most scholarships have a January or February deadline for the next academic year. You’ll need to look very aggressively for summer scholarship opportunities.
You may need to “save” some of your student loan eligibility for studying abroad by working more while you’re still on campus, during the holiday breaks, or over the summer. You should also check into private loan programs, including those especially designed for international study. Sometimes the private loan payments can be folded into federal student loan payments upon graduation.
You have probably counted on earnings from short-term employment to supplement your income and to get you over the financial rough spots. As a result, you will need to determine your earnings potential, if any, while studying abroad. Most foreign countries recognize major credit cards and have ATMs, just like the U.S., and you will experience the same financial pitfalls you have probably already faced in the U.S.
You should discuss your financial situation with a staff person in the aid office long before you finalize your study abroad plans. Remember with whom you talked and check back with him or her at regular intervals to be sure you understand your aid eligibility and you can count on it. It’s possible that some of your bills for study abroad may become due before your aid is available, so be sure you have written verification of all of your awards. Also be sure that the study abroad office staff understands that you are a financial aid recipient and they are sensitive to your circumstances. They will be a lot more sympathetic if you have applied on time, kept your costs to a level that you can afford, and shown that you are academically conscientious.
Finding a Good Study Abroad Program Match
• Do the teaching methods match your learning style? Can you adapt?
• Do you risk falling short of your home school’s standards for satisfactory academic progress?
• How long can you be out of the country and not jeopardize your job, your lease, or your family’s dependence on you?
• Do you know the critical dates for applications, aid notifications, and payment deadlines?
• Does the program seem affordable?
DR. SUSAN L. PUGH, a 30-plus-year veteran aid officer, is the Director of the Office of Student Financial Assistance at Indiana Univ. in Bloomington, IN. She has worked with NAFSA and SECUSSA to lobby for federal regulations that would facilitate overseas study for needy students. Dr. Pugh recently made her own first trip abroad, to Australia, courtesy of the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler Univ.