Letter to the Editor: Study abroad is within first-generation, low-income students’ reach

In “First-generation, low-income students feel priced out of study abroad,” reported by Andrea Bian, I was dismayed to see a misleading headline that sends the message to first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students that study abroad is beyond their reach. Northwestern FGLI students actually study abroad at rates that meet or exceed those of the general undergraduate population. 

Of college students who studied abroad during the 2018 to 2019 school year, well over half, 53.79 percent, self-reported that they received financial aid, and 12.41 percent self-reported they are first generation college students. In comparison, approximately 45.56 percent of 2018-19 full-time Northwestern undergraduates received financial aid.

Northwestern’s study abroad financial aid strategy is designed to facilitate access for students with financial need. Financial aid is portable, and students’ aid packages are calculated based on their anticipated airfare, housing, living costs and academic expenses for the specific program and location they have selected. While this approach can’t account for every circumstance, students with high financial need should not be priced out of participating in a study abroad program, as their aid is adjusted to meet the needs associated with the actual program cost.

Yes, more efforts are needed to continue lowering barriers to study abroad participation for FGLI students. For many, the way financial aid operates is sometimes difficult to understand, and financial choices surrounding study abroad may be difficult to make. It can be challenging to plan and manage a budget in a foreign currency, or to choose between a higher-cost flight that provides more services versus a lower-cost flight that can result in other inconveniences. For many, this is the first time they are traveling internationally, which carries a host of new hurdles — visas, language barriers, vaccinations — beyond the financial. Other students face the added task of explaining the value of study abroad to skeptical parents.

We know these challenges are very real. Continuous and campus-wide outreach is needed so that students know about the resources and services available to support their study abroad goals. Advisers in the Global Learning Office, Undergraduate Financial Aid and the Office of Fellowships work together to demystify the process and support students as they seek to understand and fund their study abroad. We offer information sessions about money matters, individualized financial aid and fellowship advising and an expanding array of online resources to help students understand their options, anticipate their challenges and connect with returned students with similar concerns. On an ongoing basis, we seek and listen to student feedback that can help us to improve these initiatives. For example, the experience of the student cited in the article was instrumental in our decision to move to a new platform for Bridge Builder flight bookings this year. 

Another contributor to the stress that students may feel comes from the realization that many of their peers will spend significant time and money traveling to other destinations while abroad. Increasingly, students have come to see such travel as part of the experience, yet because it is not part of the academic program, it is not factored into students’ financial aid. Students who can’t afford such travel may feel isolated in what is already an uncomfortable situation, studying in a different country, culture and often language. Just as Northwestern has been dedicated to developing resources for creating inclusive, equitable and supportive experiences for FGLI students on-campus in recent years, it is equally important that we figure out ways to extend these efforts to students when they’re abroad.

We are committed to working with students and our campus partners to make sure that study abroad is a key experience that every Northwestern undergraduate can and should enjoy.

— Sara Tully, Director of the Global Learning Office