Friday, June 13, 2014

As a kid, there were some things that I just put out of my mind. If I stumbled upon an expensive dress, I adverted my gaze. When friends asked if I wanted to go out for a meal, I told them I had other plans. I didn’t avoid these things to receive pity or solicit any type of charity; I simply understood my family’s financial situation, and that was that. Due partly to my parent’s way of openly discussing financial issues with me, I was a pragmatic child. There was a mortgage to pay and groceries to buy, my whims could wait. There was one fantasy I couldn’t shake, though. As I so fervently told my mother again and again, “I want to understand how as many people as possible on Earth live their daily lives!” Ah, yes, to me travel has always been about the people I would find in each unique place. When I day-dreamt about my future exploits I was never in a given place for less than a month. No, no, two weeks would not allow me to thoroughly get to know and understand all of the beautiful, quirky people I had envisaged. Once I had decided that I simply had to stay in these foreign locations for a longer period of time, I decided studying abroad was my solution. Beginning at about age 14 I began drafting my plans to realize my dream of studying abroad during college. Now, how just how was I going to pay for it…

I’ll let you in on a secret: I thought studying abroad was reserved for people with money. Or people with parents with money. As it turned out, one only needs to apply a bit of elbow grease and do some research to be launched from low-income home to an undefined destination half way across the world. I will say, however, my journey would have been much simpler had I followed some sort of guide, or mentor, or...something. Alas, that is why I am writing! To record on the interwebs forever a step-by-step guide for a low-resource student from the University of Iowa (applications could be made to other universities) to experience the joys and wonder of studying in another land, without having to live on rice and beans while abroad and/or taking on thousands of dollars in (additional) student debt.

1. Choose a destination. I know, this seems obvious, but there is more that goes into than you may think. If you have limited U.S. dollars to spend, it is important to think about how far your U.S. dollars will take you in a given country. Now, I went to Europe AND to one of the more expensive cities in Europe, Bilbao, Spain, and still pulled it off. Just note that if you want your money to go a long way, it may be a good idea to spend your semester or year in a place where the U.S. dollar is worth more than local currency.

That being said, the most important part of choosing a destination city is to select a country, city, and university that aligns with your personal and professional goals. Basically, think about what you are looking to get out of an experience, and what place is best suited to meet those expectations. For me, I knew I wanted to gain fluency in Spanish, explore parts of Europe, and live in a place very different from Iowa. In terms of place, Bilbao offered everything I needed. I could practice my Spanish daily with the locals and my host family, I was located very close to the French border and therefore had easy access to other parts of Europe, and my home was a few blocks from a beautiful beach serving as a constant reminder that I certainly wasn’t in Iowa anymore.

The best way to begin narrowing down destination options is to visit the University of Iowa Office of Study Abroad. The office is located at 1111 University Capitol Centre in the Old Capitol Mall on Clinton St. Simply enter through the North entrance, take a right passed Cookies N’ More, go through the double glass doors and look for the office. If you have never visited the study abroad office, your first visit will be spent in a large room filled with informational books about various study abroad programs and destinations. The books are organized on shelves by continent, and student advisors are available to sit down and chat with you about all of your possibilities. All of the employees have studied abroad with the University and are excited to help you choose your adventure. Usually, students are welcome to take informational brochures and books home with them to spend more time researching options after this initial appointment. If, by the end of this meeting you have chosen a region of the world in which you wish to study, you can make an advising appointment with the study abroad advisor for that area.

Now, you may wonder when this entire process should start. In my opinion, the earlier the better. It is wise to get a general idea of the full cost of the program as soon as possible so that you may begin exploring your funding options. I began looking at programs over a year before I departed for Spain and found that I had ample time to write scholarship essays and plan financially.

2. Choose a program. Now that you have chosen the city or town in which you wish to study, it is time to choose which program you’d like to work through to have the best experience possible. In terms of making the transfer of credits from a foreign university more seamless, I recommend studying with a program that works directly with the University of Iowa for credit allotment. I choose United Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and had no problems with the transfer of my credits. This is an important issue to bring up with your study abroad advisor. These advisors are a wonderful resource as they have had to deal with awarding foreign credits to students that study abroad in the past. For this reason, they understand which programs make that process easier and which programs make it more difficult.

A second crucial thing to consider is the total cost of the program. When comparing cost, be sure to figure in an estimated cost for airfare as it is almost never included in program fees. Additionally, do not discount the more expensive option right away. Take time to consider whether or not food, room and board are included in the fees. Also, take a moment to think about whether you’d like to live with a host family from the destination country, or take up residence in an apartment with other students. Usually, when living with a host family three meals a day are included whereas in an apartment students are responsible for purchasing their own food. Be realistic with yourself about how much money you think you would spend on groceries vs eating out if you were to live alone. If you think you’d be likely to spend a large amount of money at restaurants, living with a host family is probably a more savvy economic move.

3. Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships. Here is where the fun begins! Before beginning the application process, you must find out about all of the scholarships you can and choose those for which you are best suited. A good place to start is asking your study abroad advisor about scholarships the University of Iowa offers (there are a lot) and about reliable websites with links to more possible scholarships. There are many University scholarships that are specific to various regions and countries, as well as the Diversity Ambassador, Merit-based, and Need-based scholarships. Any student studying abroad can apply for these and as a student of limited means, you may have a good chance of being selected for the diversity or need-based scholarships. Next, make sure to utilize the scholarship resources your advisor has given to you, and start their applications as soon as you can to be sure to turn in a quality application.

4. Do the Gilman. I was turned on to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program by my study abroad advisor, and I decided to take a risk. To apply, you can make an account here and follow the easy steps: are many parts to the Gilman application so again: START EARLY. You want to give yourself the best chance of being selected and in order to do that, you must turn in your best work. The work that best represents you. Honestly. To me, the most important parts of this application are the written pieces. Remember, the selection committee has no idea who you are. You must do your best to pour your spirit onto paper because that is all they have to go off of. If you are unsure of your writing and have allowed enough time, be sure to utilize the University of Iowa Writing Center. You can submit works or make appointments here: Now, this is a resource, not an easy way out. Tutors will offer suggestions, but it is your responsibility to develop content and compose the best works possible.

Speaking of content, remember to value yourself in your statements of purpose or other written portions of scholarship applications. Think critically about not only what you have to gain from an international learning experience, but what you have to offer a given program or place. Understand that your background and experiences are unique, and that is valuable. Write honestly about where you come from and how that can ultimately benefit others. You must explain candidly why you deserve the opportunity to see the world and understand other cultures. Do not be discouraged by lengthy applications or a large applicant pool. Believe that you are a strong candidate and allow that to show in your writing. Applications are not the time to be humble, remember that.

5. While you’re abroad. So, you’ve got your scholarships and you’ve made the leap: You’re abroad! There are a few money-saving tips I’d like to offer. First of all, street food is where it’s at. There are tons of street vendors in most cities selling cheap, delicious food. If you’re eating out of the house, this is a thrifty way to eat what the locals do, and trust me, it’s delicious! Next, book your flights early. If you’re planning to do any traveling while you’re abroad try to plan out when you’re going ahead of time and buy tickets then. This is usually how you’ll get the best prices be it plane or train. Third, carry a card with current U.S. dollar to local currency conversion rates on it. This is especially useful in countries where the U.S. dollar is worth less. Don’t let your money sneak away from you because you forgot to consider conversion rates! Finally, don’t worry about shopping. Some of the people in your program may be more wealthy than you and will spend oodles of money buying clothes, gadgets, etc. Remember that material items will eventually fail you, but you’ll always have the memories you’ve made while abroad. Don’t waste money on material goods if it means you’ll miss out on a trip or a cultural experience! Finally, be sure to withdraw money from your U.S. banking account in large amounts to avoid a large amount of service charges. It is best to withdraw about $500 at a time, leaving most of it in a secure location and carrying a small amount with you. Withdrawing large amounts of cash will decrease the frequency in which service charges are applied.

In review, the most important thing to remember throughout this entire process is to take a risk. Do not operate under the assumption that only the wealthy can afford to travel. There are people and organizations, like the Gilman foundation, that want to see you live your dreams. We are fortunate enough to live in a country and attend a University that don’t forget about those with fewer economic resources. If you are a hard-working student, chances are someone wants to see you go abroad, and you deserve it! Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds weave diversity into study abroad cohorts, projecting a different view of the American student to foreign citizens. Indeed, not only is is possible for us to work hard and have our studies abroad funded, it is beneficial to global citizens. Just as we are learning about the splendid, diverse ways of the world, we are enriching and shaking up the common conceptions of tourists from the United States. Just as we owe it to the cultures of the world to explore their ways of life, we also owe them a more honest picture of the social fabric of the United States.