As many organizations and institutions align with the Generation Study Abroad Initiative to double study abroad participation over the next 5 years, it is imperative that the international education community continue to reach out in effective ways to the student groups who have traditionally been disproportionately underrepresented in study abroad, such as first-generation college students (first-gen students). Study Abroad participation statistics nationwide, while slowly shifting, continue to mirror socioeconomic and racial disparities also present in the US higher education system. While not always the case, first-generation college students often identify as racial/ethnic minorities and/or with low income backgrounds.
For the purposes of this blog post, first generation college student, in line with the federally-funded TRIO programs definition, will refer to a student whose parent(s) (adoptive/birth/custodial) did not complete a bachelor’s degree. Much of what we already know about increasing access to college for first-gen students is also applicable when addressing education abroad opportunities for these students. As we consider new strategies to increase involvement in education abroad among first-gen populations, both access and support are crucial factors.
Often, although not always, finances are a big concern for first-gen students. Despite the availability of funding options for education abroad through a student’s home institution, the Gilman Scholarship Program, among many other funding sources, the belief that education abroad is out-of-reach financially still persists for many first-gen students. Maintaining a job (or several) while pursuing a college degree, and sending money home to the family, are often of primary concern for first-gen students. A study abroad experience may be perceived as a luxury or an expensive “vacation” that doesn’t fit into a first-gen student’s budget or tight academic plan. What strategies and policies exist within education abroad offices to address these concerns? How might education abroad offices adjust messaging campaigns to more effectively communicate with first generation college students? How is the value of a study abroad experience, especially as it relates to future career plans, demonstrated in campus outreach efforts? Where, on campus and beyond, would messaging reach first-gen students?
In addition to finances, first-gen students are sometimes hesitant to leave the “comfort” of the college community to embark on an overseas experience. The New York Time’s recent piece entitled First-Generation Students Unite, describes a national movement, primarily among the more elite US institutions of higher education, where first-gen students are “coming out” on their college campuses to create communities of belonging. On many campuses across the country, institutional culture assumes that students understand how to navigate the college environment. For first-gen students who may not have been previously exposed to college life through family members, navigating the college environment and its many unspoken norms can be overwhelming and even isolating. Programs such as the federally-funded TRIO program and the POSSE Foundation are including community-building components into the college experience for first-gen students in an effort to address this. These efforts often include intensive summer pre-seasons for incoming first-years to build a cohort of student and staff support that can be accessed throughout a student’s college career. As demonstrated in the New York Times article, first-gen students are also forming their own student groups, even across campuses, to create this needed community. With this in mind, education abroad can seem like a step in the opposite direction, potentially severing ties with a close-knit community on-campus. Study abroad can be intimidating and possibly even threatening, especially when time and effort have been invested in cultivating a supportive community on-campus.
These represent only a few things international educators may consider as we work to provide access and support to the first-gen communities on our campuses. How are we adjusting our messaging and support to address implicit bias? What do we currently understand about first-generation college students? Where do we need to invest in further research? What cohort or other community-supportive models for study abroad may appeal to first-gen students?