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Studying Abroad as a First Generation College Student

I remember feeling discouraged because the estimated costs were high, but I thought, “if I’ve made it this far, I can find a way to study abroad.”

Perspectives

Recently I went back to my high school to talk to students about my experience studying abroad, and college in general. I hadn’t been back to my high school since I graduated three and a half years ago. Returning reminded me of the uncertainty I felt when I was applying to college, but also of the excitement of having a life full of possibilities in front of me. During my visit, I talked to students about something that, considering my situation at the time, seemed almost impossible – studying abroad.

Being a senior, I knew that not many people who graduated from my high school attended a four-year university. I also knew that my high school was not one of the top-performing schools in our district, let alone the state. According to the Texas Education Agency’s 2017-18 Academic Performance Report, 56.1% of students at Pasadena High School were considered at risk of dropping out. The report also stated that 76.2% of students were considered to be “economically disadvantaged,” a category in which I fell during my time as a student.

Talking to high school juniors and seniors about applying to college and studying abroad.
Talking to high school juniors and seniors about applying to college and studying abroad.

Talking to these students reminded me of the questions I had when applying to college. How do I apply for housing? How do I get an apartment lease? Which classes should I register for? Am I choosing the right major? I was not able to ask these questions to anyone in my family because no one had been through this process before. I was lucky to have helpful advisors that guided me to more resources. But, in addition to all those questions, I had many more on my mind. How do I get funding for studying abroad? Where should I go? What classes should I take? Can I do it?

Growing up, money, or the lack of it, was always an issue. It was the reason why I could not obtain a good education in Mexico and the reason why I decided to move to the United States with a relative when I was 14 years old. During my first two years in the United States, I focused all my energy on learning English and “catching up” with everyone else. After finishing my sophomore year of high school and moving with another relative to another city in Texas, I started working two part-time jobs. They kept me busy and allowed me to purchase my first cellphone and even my first (very affordable) car. If I learned something from having my first job when I was 16 years old, it was that I could work hard enough to get anything I wanted. Without that optimistic outlook in life, I don’t think I could have remained motivated for what came next.

When I was accepted to The University of Texas at Austin (UT), there were so many things on my mind, including to start planning to study abroad. I remember going through UT’s website and searching for exchange programs the summer before starting my first semester. I remember feeling discouraged because the estimated costs were high, but I thought, “if I’ve made it this far, I can find a way to study abroad.”

As a college student, I knew I had to continue to find resources that would allow me to have experiences that were at the reach of my peers, but not mine. My parents could not support me financially in the United States and as a first-generation college student and as an immigrant from Mexico, I already had a lot on my plate. It was hard not to get discouraged from my goal of studying abroad. In my first semester, I had to work to pay for my on-campus dormitory because my financial aid did not cover all the costs. Looking back, I see how lost I was, and how much research I had to do to make up for all the resources I did not have access to growing up. I had to teach myself how to study (how to really study), how to manage my time, and how to budget the small amount of money I received from my part-time job because that was the only source of income I had. On top of that, I still had this thought in the back of my head: “am I going to be able to study abroad?”

I took this picture of the view from my window in Segovia, Spain, while packing to return to the United States.
I took this picture of the view from my window in Segovia, Spain, while packing to return to the United States.

I finished my first year of college, and I truly felt like I could accomplish anything I wanted to. It was a hard first year, but I did it. When my sophomore year of college came around, I decided I would study abroad during the fall semester of my junior year, giving myself a full year to plan. I did more research on where I wanted to go, and decided I wanted to study in Spain. I attended an information session where I learned who my advisor would be and other resources such as where to look for scholarships and when the deadlines were. In January, I completed my first scholarship application, even before the application to study abroad opened. After attending the first information session, I was convinced this was something I was going to do. I did not know how, but in my mind, I didn’t have any doubts that I would make it happen.

By this time, my parents knew that I was planning to move across the globe. Unfortunately, every time I would bring it up with them, they would brush it off. I know my parents did not mean to be rude or to make me feel like it was something I could not accomplish, but to them, it seemed impossible.  How would I afford to move to another country and continent when I was already working so hard in the United States? Besides, no one in our family had ever done it. They did not know of people like us doing things like these. I also think they refused to acknowledge my plans because deep down, they were scared I was going to actually do it. They did not want me to go even further away. After all, I left home when I was only 14 years old.

In March, I was accepted to my study abroad program of choice. I was at home in Mexico for Spring Break when I got the news. My mom was really happy for me, but that night when we were having dinner, she was sad. She did not want me to go, but she knew how amazing this opportunity was for me. My dad was also happy, but he worried. He still did not understand how I was going to be able to afford it. He told me he was worried something would happen to me while being away, and they did not have the resources to help me or to get to me. I assured him everything would be fine, even before I was sure of it myself.

After getting accepted, I continued applying for scholarships and looking for resources. In April, everything started to come together. I received financial aid, scholarships from my university, and study abroad scholarships. I received a scholarship from the Fund for Education Abroad (FEA) and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. I found these scholarships through my university’s study abroad resource page. The Fund for Education Abroad provides scholarships to students who are underrepresented in the U.S. study abroad population and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a program of the U.S. Department of State that helps students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. Thanks to these resources, I knew that I was going to be able to study abroad.

I called my parents when I received the first scholarship notice to give them the good news. Even after that, months later, I had to sit down with my dad and break down to him the aid I was receiving, the budget I had made, the cost of rent and other expenses, for him to understand that I had it under control and that I was going to be okay. It was only after having that conversation a couple of weeks before I left that I felt his full support.

Even after having the financial aspect of it figured out, I still had more planning to do. Figuring out where I was going to live, buying the airplane ticket (first airplane ticket I bought in my entire life), more research on which classes I was going to take to make sure I was going to receive credit. To be honest, the planning and the research never really ended, but it was so worth it.

One of my favorite things about walking to school, the fall colors.
One of my favorite things about walking to school, the fall colors.

During my time in Segovia, Spain, I learned more than I could have imagined. I learned that I don’t really get homesick and that I love to travel. I switched career paths and I made friends from many different parts of the world. My love for my home country grew, but I also realized that the United States holds a big place in my heart, too. Strangely enough, I became even closer to my family, as I called them more often to share with them my adventures.

Going back to my high school last month made me realize that there is a lot of work to be done for students that come from underrepresented communities, but I am hopeful. According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, in the last decade racial and ethnic diversity improved from 18% to 30%; this means that more African American, Hispanic, Asian and multiracial students are studying abroad.

Overall, my experience studying abroad helped me understand that you can truly achieve whatever you want if you work hard towards it. I hope that during my visit to my former high school, I was able to inspire at least one student to believe in themselves. In whatever they are trying to do, I hope they know that there are big opportunities out there for them, no matter their economic status, or their high school’s academic performance.

My advice for any students out there that want to study abroad in college is to start planning early. Even if you are in high school, start thinking of where you would like to go and what you want to gain from this experience. Reach out to advisors, or students that were in your shoes before. There are people out there that want to help you. Make a plan and stick to it. In the end, I can promise you it will be worth it.


2017–18 Texas Academic Performance Report. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://rptsvr1.tea.texas.gov/perfreport/tapr/2018/srch.html?srch=C.

Open Doors 2019. (2019). Retrieved from https://p.widencdn.net/6tpaeo/Open-Doors-Annual-Data-Release-2019-11-17-Print.

Adamari Gonzalez-Carlos is a Journalism and Communication Studies senior at The University of Texas at Austin. She currently interns at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, and Sensis Agency.

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