Almost every college has a study abroad fair, and I’m sure most students have wandered between fair booths collecting pamphlets that get shoved into desk drawers never to see the sun again. The prospect of traveling to a different country and learning in a new cultural context is appealing to most students, but the percent of students who actually participate in these programs is low-around 10%. Why so few?
There are a number of considerations involved in the decision to go abroad. Some of them include finances, timing, and academic credit. Not all programs offer the same academic experience. Some programs will give students elective credits or credit towards completing their general university requirements (GURs). If a program offers a language component (like learning french while studying in France) those credits could fit into a language minor. However, I’ve found that there are fewer options for science students looking for a program that will give them credits that translate directly into their major requirements.
I didn’t think that I would have the time (let alone financing) to join an abroad program. By the time I transferred to Western Washington University, my third college, and declared as an environmental science major in my junior year, I had no time for non-major credits. I had two years left to meet complete my major before the end of my fourth year in college. As a college-bound scholarship recipient, I have a certain time frame for completing my undergraduate degree before I am ineligible for the scholarship, limiting my ability to take quarters after my fourth year. Any abroad program I joined would need to offer courses that translated as environmental science courses rather than study abroad credits. I didn’t think there were any programs that would offer these credits, so I wrote off study abroad as a possibility until winter quarter of my junior year.
I was sitting in my Human Geography class when a representative for Wildlands Studies, Allie, gave a presentation about the program. She had participated in the Wildlands New Zealand program, and it sounded incredible. Allie mentioned that environmental students could receive major credit from the program which caught my interest. She was kind enough to meet with me after class and tell me about her experience and explain how the credit equivalency worked.
Wildlands Studies is a program that gives students fieldwork experience while focusing on the ecological concepts of the region. For example, Allie’s New Zealand program focused on Island ecology including volcanic geology and species identification of birds native to New Zealand. The emphasis placed on ecological education in the field is what allows Wildlands to translate credits to courses applicable to a student’s major.
This meeting with Allie showed me that there were programs out there for science students that would advance them through their major. I was hooked from this meeting and decided then and there that I would be joining Wildlands. But why did I want to join a study abroad program?
Why Study Abroad?
Prior to my study abroad experience I had not traveled. My family was not the vacationing type, we simply couldn’t fit it in financially. Because of this, my cultural exposure was pretty low. My high school was not diverse, and even at college I was usually surrounded by people belonging to the same cultural identity as myself.
I am a believer in global citizenship, the idea that people belong to a broader community than that created by political or national boundaries. And I believe that part of a global citizen’s responsibility is to educate themselves on different cultures through participating in that culture. I wanted to join an abroad program to increase my understanding of non-Western cultures. I wanted to put myself outside of my comfort zone and experience what it was like to be in a country where the primary language was not English and for once I was a foreigner. In doing so, I might better empathize with other groups and understand just how much privilege I possessed due to my status as a college student and an American.
Studying abroad would offer me a chance to view my position through a different cultural context, something I had not done before. It would also allow me to develop skills in the field that are relevant and valuable to the type of careers I am pursuing such as data collection and research project development. An abroad program would allow me to expand my ecological knowledge into areas that I otherwise might never have the opportunity to study.
A study abroad program would offer the opportunity to become a better global citizen through challenging my notion of cultural norms and allow me to become a more well-rounded environmental scientist by broadening my knowledge of different ecosystems.
I had found a program that related directly to my major and would provide the credits I needed to graduate on time, the only issue was I couldn’t afford it.
When you want to travel, but can only afford to travel to work…
Before my abroad trip I had been to exactly two states besides the one I lived in: Oregon and California. I had also been briefly to Canada to drop my sister off at the airport, but I am not counting that as travel. This is relevant because I had no experience flying or buying tickets.
After my meeting with Allie, I began to look into the different programs offered by Wildlands to try and find one that might be more financially feasible for me. I began looking at the cost of round-trip tickets to Nepal, Thailand, and New Zealand (some of the programs I was most interested in) and quickly found out that the tickets were worth more than my car.
This was a bit of a damper on my spirits.
For students on financial aid (and in general), a $1500 plane ticket is no small thing. That is a few months rent, a quarter’s food budget, 11,538 packets of Top Ramen, or in my case all of my savings. How could I justify signing up for a study abroad trip when just the plain ticket alone would set me back financially? I could, with much less effort and cost, stay at my university and keep my savings intact.
This was my primary dilemma in deciding whether to apply to Wildlands. I knew I desperately wanted to go, and that I had a lot to gain from going, but I technically didn’t need to go. I could take courses at my university and graduate without going abroad, making Wildlands a want. And financially, needs come before wants.
1. A word of advice to fellow students: don’t rule out any option before talking to financial aid advisers. They are one of the most important resources for students, and they are not utilized nearly enough. I met with an adviser to see how much of my financial aid would apply towards a Wildlands Studies program. And here is where the major credit vs. elective credit distinction comes into play:
Because I would be receiving credit relating directly to my field of study, more of my financial aid could be applied to the program than if I would be receiving elective credits only. This meant that the same amount of financial aid I was going to be receiving for a typical school quarter could go towards the program cost. My financial aid adviser also connected me to several scholarships that I could apply to for further help, namely the Gilman Scholarship.
This was a major step forward in making Wildlands a possibility.
2. If you are a student with financial aid and want to pursue a study abroad program, talk with your financial and study abroad advisers to see what programs qualify for financial aid.
At this point, I still didn’t know how I was going to come up with half the program cost, but this meeting was encouragement enough for me to begin my application to Wildlands Studies.