Study Abroad, Office of Financial Aid launch Bridge Builder Program in effort to make study abroad more financially accessible

Matthew Choi, Assistant Campus Editor

Low-income students studying abroad this quarter and next have been able to purchase plane tickets through the Northwestern Study Abroad Office as part of the new Bridge Builder Program.

Headed by the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and the Study Abroad Office, the new program is an effort to make study abroad more accessible to students of all income levels, said Krista Bethel, assistant director of study abroad financial services.

“The intention was to avoid students having to pay out-of-pocket for something their financial aid will eventually cover,” Bethel said. “If you don’t have one or two thousand dollars out-of-pocket … to book a flight that will be paid for later, then that can be a real hurdle.”

Bridge Builder allows eligible students to purchase plane tickets for study abroad through the Study Abroad Office and have the airfare added to their study abroad bill, said Jessica Fetridge, assistant director at the Study Abroad Office. This then allows students to use their financial aid for airfare, along with all other bills for study abroad, she said.

The program began with this year’s application process during Fall Quarter, Fetridge said, with three students successfully purchasing plane tickets for study abroad programs Winter and Spring Quarter.

Bridge Builder is available to undergraduate students with expected family contributions of less than $10,000 for the academic year — a threshold which would expand beyond Pell Grant recipients, the common definition of a low-income student, Bethel said. She said she contacted eligible students accepted into study abroad programs and has met with them to determine their eligibility and to have an opportunity to discuss other financial matters concerning study abroad.

The program is only applicable for NU-run and affiliated programs, and is not available for summer study abroad programs, Bethel said.

She said she feels strongly about making study abroad financially accessible, as she relied on financial aid to be able to spend a year in Germany as a college student.

“It would be a coin toss in my life whether study abroad or financial aid was more defining for me in college,” Bethel said. “So the study abroad offices and I have been working hard to really remove as many barriers to study abroad as possible.”

Previously, study abroad students would often purchase their tickets before they received financial aid for that quarter, Bethel said, which restricted students who lacked the funds to immediately do so. Students would have to be reimbursed afterward, Bethel said.

For next Fall Quarter’s Bridge Builder application period, Fetridge said students can fill out an application with the Study Abroad Office by June 1, or two months before their start date for earlier sessions, and select their own flights through Intra World Travel and Tours, an Evanston travel agency that partnered with NU for the program.

Understanding how financial aid would work in regards to basic travel expenses would also pose challenges to low-income students, said Amanda Walsh, president of the NU Quest Scholars Network.

“A problem is financial literacy; a lot of low-income students don’t know how their financial aid will apply to study abroad,” the Communication senior said. “If students don’t have a few thousand dollars for airfare or maybe a few nights in a hotel … they might end up skimping on other things essential to their livelihood abroad.”

Bridge Builder aims to address those concerns, Bethel said. Federal regulations prohibit the Office of Financial Aid from providing aid outside of the term for which it is intended, Bethel said, barring the office from providing financial aid before the beginning of a study abroad program. Now, low-income students will no longer face that challenge.

Similar programs at the University of Minnesota and the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University inspired the creation of Bridge Builder, Bethel said. Shortly after those institutions created their programs, Bethel was in contact with them to create a similar program for NU. The pilot program launched for the Winter and Spring Quarters as generally fewer students go abroad during those quarters, allowing a favorable trial environment, Bethel said.

The program was met with wide enthusiasm across all University departments involved in its development, Fetridge said. The Study Abroad Office and Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid worked with the Office of Budget and Planning, the Office of General Counsel and Intra World Travel, and received approval to launch the program late last June.

“(This is) like the first time in history where there were no roadblocks and everybody was like, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’” Fetridge said. “So that was really exciting so it actually came together really quickly.”

Both Fetridge and Bethel said making study abroad accessible to all students is a priority and they are working to break down barriers and preconceptions that may discourage students from applying.

“Study abroad has become a major phenomenon nationwide,” Bethel said. “Especially at Northwestern where globalization is part of our collegiate plan, that seems like something (we need) to make as accessible to as many students as possible, and we’re doing as much as we can to make that possible.”

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