A Different Experience: Supporting First Generation College Students in Education Abroad

Studying abroad was never something I planned on doing. I knew such a thing existed, but to me it existed in a realm of things I didn’t perceive as meant for me. I was a first generation college student and even attending college didn’t seem like something someone like me would do; it was for other kids. I nearly dropped out several times. After two years of near-daily encouragement from my favorite professor, I finally began to consider study abroad as something meant for me, too.

Last year I earned a Master’s degree in College Student Development, during the course of which I became very interested in researching the experience of first generation college students (FGCS). I didn’t even realize I was part of a demographic of students who experience college differently until I began studying student development.

As part of my Master’s thesis I surveyed students at different universities who identified as FGCS and asked questions about their plans to study abroad. The results were wholly qualitative though still enlightening. I asked study abroad advisors to connect me with students who had demonstrated interest in study abroad. Less than 34 percent of the students I was connected with were FGCS, reinforcing what I already suspected, namely that FGCS are largely underrepresented among the population of students going abroad. FGCS who responded that they were not planning to study abroad listed finances, family or work obligations, graduating late, and lack of interest as the reasons why they would not pursue studying abroad. I was also interested in how these FGCS learned about study abroad. “From Friends” was rated higher than “Study Abroad Fair” as a source where FGCS learned about study abroad, and only 4 percent listed “Social Media” as a source.

Some of the reasons listed for not studying abroad fall in line with assumptions that many FGCS are also from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However, concerns over graduating late or lack of interest signal a lack of awareness or knowledge about study abroad opportunities or even what “study abroad” means. I wonder how many of these students knew about opportunities to complete a career-oriented internship abroad.

I was fortunate enough to receive the Gilman Scholarship at the end of my sophomore year of college, which funded a large part of my junior year abroad in Bonn, Germany. Unfortunately, many FGCS still do not know about this or other funding opportunities, and many of them are likely ill-informed about study abroad in general. Even in my small study, to see that common means of promoting study abroad such as fairs and social media are not leaving a strong impression on FGCS should encourage us to think outside of the box in terms of how we can reach this ever growing population of college students. If we hope to double the number of college students studying abroad by 2020, we need to do all we can to understand and support FGCS and their unique perceptions of the college experience, including studying and interning abroad.

Randi Butler is IIE’s Institutional Relations and Outreach Officer representing the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.