Yet Another College Experience That’s Very Different for First-Generation Students

Yet Another College Experience That’s Very Different for First-Generation Students


What schools can do to help more people study abroad.

A male student wearing a red backpack looks to his left down the street.

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With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, many college study abroad programs are back up and running. Typical participants—statistically speaking, they’re wealthy, white women majoring in business or social sciences—are spending their junior years in Barcelona and London, Paris and Rome; for many, these international sojourns are an expectation and a rite of passage. But what about first-generation college students who have to beg off work, suspend family responsibilities, and scrape up enough money for a few short weeks overseas? What does study abroad mean to them?

Today, approximately 30 percent of incoming first-year students in U.S. colleges and universities, and up to 77 percent of all students, are first-generation. The term “first-generation college student,” a common proxy for class status, gained prominence only in the early 2000s, following emendations to the U.S. Higher Education Act. Although not all researchers agree on how the term should be defined, most colleges and universities follow the federal definition of a student, neither of whose parents has completed a bachelor’s degree. Far from homogenous, these students identify across ethnic and racial categories and social classes, but most are working-class immigrants, children of immigrants, and students of color.

Regardless of their backgrounds, most Americans on study abroad pack their bags and head to Europe, with Spain, Italy, the U.K. (12 percent each), France (5 percent), Germany (3 percent), and Ireland (3 percent) absorbing the majority of these visitors. Other popular, non-European destinations include Australia (5 percent), Costa Rica (2 percent), and Japan (2 percent). The mystique of “junior year abroad” notwithstanding, according to the Institute for International Education, most students now participate in short-term programs of a semester or less. Such brief stints overseas appeal that much more to first-generation college students, as they’re less expensive and easier to schedule around than longer-term programs of a year or more.

One major challenge for these students is the hefty price tag. Juan Aguilar, a 31-year-old Latino business major at a small private university, winced at the $30,000 in tuition necessary to study abroad for a full semester. (I’ve used pseudonyms for the students I interviewed for this article, which is based on a larger study of the international education experiences of first-generation college students.) The comparable summer program, on the other hand, “was only $10,000. So I was like, I can do that.” While funding often isn’t a question for more privileged students, most students who are first-generation have to cobble together money for a program from a variety of sources, including scholarships, financial aid, and personal savings from one or more jobs. Rae Chastain, a 26-year-old white biology major at a large public university, earned $900 for her trip to Australia by selling handmade holiday earrings, body scrubs, and candles to co-workers and customers at the restaurant where she works. These efforts to pay for international experiences require energy, effort, creativity, and, above all, time—a commodity often in short supply for these students.

But first-generation students face more than financial obstacles in their efforts to study abroad. In addition to work and school, many also have significant family responsibilities that make international travel difficult. For instance, Amelia Vergara, a 34-year-old white Air Force veteran, has a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. “Mostly because I have kids,” she said, “I didn’t really think it was possible.” Child care assistance from her mother and mother-in-law allowed her to study in Spain for five weeks. Others, especially female students of color, struggle to gain parental permission to study abroad. Cristina Alvarez, a 22-year-old Latina business major, faced a “hard no” when she told her parents about an opportunity to study in Japan. Similarly, Veronica Garcia, a 24-year-old Latina law student, confronted extreme pressure from her father to drop out of her program to East Africa. As she explained, “Even the day before I left to my trip, he told me that I shouldn’t go.” Other students have to stretch the truth to persuade their parents. Nina Lam, a 19-year-old Asian American public health major who studied in Spain, said: “For my dad, I kinda had to play it up in saying that it’s part of my major. Technically, it isn’t.” Even when parents don’t present obstacles, extended family members often discourage first-generation college students from pursuing study abroad. Yareli Martinez Cabrera, a 20-year-old Latina co-enrolled at a community college and a large public university, described her grandmother’s and aunts’ responses to her plans to study abroad in Ecuador: “What I’m getting from my family is You’re not scared? They want me to be scared.”

Many first-generation students view study abroad as an opportunity reserved for wealthy white peers. As Juan put it, “When I first heard about it, I was kinda like, Oh, that’s not for me, y’know? We don’t do that. That’s for white people; that’s for rich people.” In fact, even after he was admitted to his summer program to London, he questioned whether he was a “token” selected to meet a quota. Despite the fact that participation in study abroad is slowly diversifying, these students often have trouble relating to their classmates once they arrive in their destination country. Gabriel Rodriguez, a 20-year-old Latino co-enrolled at a community college and a large public university, observed that most of the other students in his study abroad program in Central America attended private schools with progressive curricula, yet, before participating in the program, “I don’t think I even [knew] a single person that goes to a private school.” Lightning Hernandez, a 22-year-old Mexican American business major at a large public university, had a similar experience in Spain. He said that a “majority of the students” in his program were “pretty affluent.” Although he had left his home state only a few times, many of his classmates were experienced international travelers, and several spent two weeks in Paris before their Barcelona program began. What’s more, they often spent their free time discussing golf and sailing. “Sometimes it was hard to relate,” Lightning explained, “just ’cause I had never experienced the things they were talking about.”

While first-generation college students face some of the same challenges as their more privileged classmates, including new climates and cultures, unfamiliar languages and customs, new diets and health issues, other struggles are unique. For instance, most students I interviewed have almost no prior travel experience beyond visiting family in their parents’ countries of origin. In those situations, however, they almost always travel with parents and siblings and stay with extended family members. Because the environment feels so familiar, they often insist that such travels “don’t count.” Yet for their study abroad trips, many such students travel alone for the first time, so even the most basic aspects of travel may cause anxiety. Few have ever been on a plane, much less navigated airport security or immigration and customs, and almost none have experience planning travel itineraries and purchasing airfare, obtaining a passport and applying for visas. “I’m so used to having my family do all the plans for us,” Nina observed, “and doing my own plans for the first time, I would admit, it’s very overwhelming.”

Once their study abroad programs begin, first-generation students face other challenges. Many grapple with ongoing mental health conditions, often a result of challenging family circumstances, that may be exacerbated by the stresses of international travel. Mason Springer, a 22-year-old white student who grew up in a home with an absent father and a bedridden mother, suffered severe chronic depression as a teenager and experienced depressive episodes while studying abroad in Central America. Similarly, Michael Hennessey, a 20-year-old Mexican American student who spent time in foster homes and now lives with his grandmother and numerous siblings, also suffered “a major depression” while on his program in Ecuador. Although more privileged students may also deal with mental health challenges while overseas, these first-generation students have often experienced severe, sustained trauma that travels abroad with them.

This group also shoulders a burden of responsibility for their study abroad experiences unfamiliar to their more privileged peers. Justyna Becker, a 19-year-old white student at a public flagship university, saw her older brother, who’s “effortlessly good at academics,” miss the opportunity to enroll in a highly ranked computer science program at an out-of-state college because he couldn’t foot the bill. As a result, she put enormous pressure on herself to make her three months in Mexico count: “I feel like there’s a lot more at stake for this, ’cause it’s not just a grade; it’s an experience, something that will change my life.” These students also want to make their parents proud, to show them that all the risks and sacrifices were worth it. Yet as Selena Castillo, a 20-year-old Latina social welfare major at a public flagship university, described: “It felt pretty surreal being in Spain, thinking of my parents and how they never really got to travel. I kinda felt bad every time I would show them pictures or call them. I don’t know, there was always just that guilt. Cuz I was there, and my parents can’t be there.”

At the same time, these students bring a range of unique skills and experiences to their study abroad adventures unavailable to many of their wealthy, white classmates. Since most are students of color, they have ample experience negotiating between their home cultures and mainstream society, and most have existing multicultural friend groups. What’s more, many are also bilingual, speaking a home language such as Cantonese, Khmer, or Spanish in addition to English. Some have also studied American Sign Language or French or Japanese in school before embarking on their study abroad programs. Such multicultural, multilingual backgrounds allow these students to integrate more easily into unfamiliar environments than their classmates and quickly acquire facility in new dialects and languages.

From most perspectives—academic and familial, financial and social—the stakes are high for first-generation college students who participate in study abroad. But it’s precisely because of the sacrifices, hardships, and struggles they cope with that these students derive so much meaning from their short-term international sojourns. According to interviews I conducted before and after their trips, it’s clear that they experience substantial personal growth, developing empathy, leadership skills, and self-confidence; many also become more introspective, reflective, and socially aware. They experience myriad firsts on their study abroad programs, as well: “We did a lot of things that for me were the first time,” Veronica explained. “The first time that I ever swam. The first time camping, the first time hiking.” What’s more, not only do these students set a positive example for friends, siblings, and other family members, they also gain independence as young adults. “I’m done feeling bad for my family,” said Yareli. “They don’t wanna do stuff for themselves to become better—I can’t do anything about that. I can only control what I wanna do about my life. That’s a hard realization that being in Ecuador helped.” They also foster meaningful friendships with other students in their programs and locals in their host communities, as well as deepen existing relationships with friends with whom they travel.

Like their classmates, first-generation students who participate in study abroad accrue credits that fulfill academic requirements for their U.S. degrees. Clearly, such “credit mobility” offers tangible rewards on an important investment. Possibly more important are the new international perspectives and intercultural understanding that result from their sojourns abroad. Study abroad helps to enhance these students’ interest in and sensitivity to other cultures, and they frequently report that this first taste of international study and travel has whet their appetite for further global exploration. Anita Jimenez, a 24-year-old Latina business major who attended three different community colleges before transferring to a large public university, hopes to continue traveling and perhaps live abroad in Mexico, where her parents are from, and Spain, where she studied for three months. Her time abroad also inspired her love of languages: “Being there makes me wanna learn so many different languages. Because everyone there knows three, four, five languages, and I only know English and Spanish.” While such a broadening of perspective could be seen as an end in itself, for many first-generation students, study abroad fosters ambition and creates possibilities for new educational paths and career directions. Nina, for instance, envisions graduate study in Spain, while Cristina, Juan, and Justyna hope to gain valuable work experience through international internships. Adriana Lopez, a 22-year-old Latina at a large public university, began learning Korean after returning from Thailand, and she hopes to teach English in South Korea, a career path suggested to her by one of the faculty leaders on her program to Southeast Asia. So, not only have these students experienced important personal transformations, they have also begun leveraging international education and career opportunities that provide a path toward upward social mobility. Without these study abroad experiences, it’s doubtful that such international education and career possibilities would have been imaginable—much less attainable—for these students.

Given that few study abroad programs make an effort to even identify first-generation students among their participants, there’s much work to be done. A good starting place might be some combination of scholarships, mentoring, and advising designed for these students’ needs, as such efforts would help facilitate—and likely increase—their participation in international education. Even more effective would be for colleges and universities to emulate study abroad programs developed specifically for first-generation students at places like Ohio Wesleyan and the Universities of Connecticut, Southern California, and Washington. These programs provide significant pre-departure preparation; a brief period abroad; culturally relevant curricula while abroad; robust faculty mentoring and administrative support; and post-trip follow-up. Such targeted programming creates opportunities for personal, academic, and professional growth, helping these students expand their social networks and serve as role models for their siblings, friends, and communities.

While first-generation college students may study abroad alongside more privileged classmates, their international experiences often have little in common. To pursue overseas studies, these students make serious sacrifices that their more privileged classmates never have to consider; yet, with their multicultural, multilingual backgrounds, nontraditional paths to and through college, and hard-won life experiences, first-generation college students actually have abilities, skills, and knowledge that help them take advantage of their overseas opportunities and make them ideal international students. In the end, their experiences often mean more to them because the stakes are so much higher. “I remember there were times,” explained Kelly about her time in India, “when I would just go on the rooftop and cry because I was just so overwhelmed with how grateful I was. And my friends would look at me really weirdly. And I’m like: You studied abroad last term, and so this is not new to you, but this is new to me, OK?”

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