OPINION: Studying abroad on financial aid comes with extra baggage

A drawing of a map of the world, with arrows coming out of Claremont and pointing to various foreign countries. There is a big gold dollar sign over the map, in the center of the image.
(Nora Wu • The Student Life)

Traveling to a new country every weekend, adopting European fashion, the intrigue of a Spanish lover … social media trends and stories from friends paint the perfect picture of a semester abroad. But for students on financial aid, study abroad isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be.

The opportunity to travel as an undergraduate student has the potential to be completely life-changing. For some, it may be the only opportunity to explore a new country. But if study abroad is truly something that the 5Cs, especially Pitzer College, pride themselves on, it should be made as accessible as possible to all student demographics. As such, Pitzer needs to take actionable steps to expand the accessibility of its abroad programs to its financial aid recipients.

I first started navigating my finances and study abroad options when I was applying for college. As I considered different schools, I had two things on my mind. First, I needed ample financial aid, and second, I wanted to study abroad. The idea of broadening my horizons, becoming a confident traveler and picking up a second language has always been a dream of mine.

I ultimately chose to attend Pitzer due to the financial support they offered. But when I started organizing my semester abroad, I discovered a significant lack of support for financial aid students, which led me to stumble over various hurdles. After discussing with many of my 5C friends, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my experience. It was challenging to get information regarding our aid’s application to a semester abroad, the timing of aid disbursement and how we were meant to sustain ourselves independently in a foreign country without work-study income. We deserve better than this.

Pitzer has a long history of sending students abroad. With “Intercultural Understanding” as a core value and graduation requirement, and even a few majors requiring a semester abroad, it comes as no surprise that Pitzer boasts partnerships with over 60 exchange programs all over the world. In 2014, Pitzer even joined the Generation Study Abroad commitment to double enrollment in study abroad programs by the year 2020, which was unfortunately halted by the pandemic. But impressive goals aside, how do Pitzer students who receive significant financial aid fit into the statistics?

On its website, Pitzer proudly states that 50 percent of its students study abroad at least once, and that 48 percent of students who attend Pitzer receive some sort of financial aid. However, what remains unclear is how these two statistics intersect: How many students on financial aid at Pitzer actually manage to study abroad? While Pitzer publishes blog posts featuring the adventures of students traveling all over the world, there is little discussion, online or in-person, of the financial implications and additional costs of living in a new country. This needs to change.

This past summer, as I began preparing to leave for Spain, finances were the first thing on my mind. Even after working full-time throughout the summer, I was unsure if I had enough savings to make it through the semester. With a hazy understanding of how I would be supported by my financial aid package, I frequently called the financial aid office with questions and often received an ambiguous answer.

About a week before my flight out of LAX, I received my final financial aid package and noticed that it was missing work-study. After a few more calls, I learned that work-study couldn’t be applied to study abroad, and as such, an additional grant amount was added to my tuition assistance. I could practically see the savings that I had generated over the summer slipping through my hands while away and without an income source.

Rowan Francis-Taylor PZ ’24 told me she was also shocked that there wasn’t more financial support for students abroad, specifically for students who rely on work-study funding to afford everyday expenses. Work-study, a federal grant that is distributed in exchange for on-campus work, can make up a large portion of a student’s aid package. However, because of labor laws and visa restrictions, work study is not available for many students while abroad. As such, there should be a greater allocation of funds to ensure that students on aid are able to comfortably afford everyday expenses outside of room and board costs.

Through my own experience and that of my peers, I’ve come to understand that the hidden costs of studying abroad are even more challenging for students on financial aid to identify. The first issue is lack of clear information about how aid applies to a semester abroad. Aside from a few sentences describing that you “are eligible to receive aid” while abroad, Pitzer’s financial aid website provides little information as to how aid is applied or tangible next steps to apply it. As such, I had to book flights out of the country while I was waiting to hear back about my finalized financial aid package for the semester, which was nail-bitingly stressful. 

Pitzer’s lack of interdepartmental communication also creates frustrating twists and turns that students on aid have to navigate. I was redirected to either the financial aid or study abroad office with all of my questions, with administrators in each office stating that they did not understand how the other office functioned and thus could not be of assistance.

While one could argue that Pitzer’s bureaucratic processes are equally frustrating for all students, those who do not need additional assistance in navigating the study abroad experience are not forced to bounce from office to office in the same time-consuming way. As such, I call on the administration, especially the financial aid and study abroad offices, to implement clear inter-office communication. It can be easy to dismiss this problem as unavoidably bureaucratic, but it places an unjust burden on aid recipients that could be easily resolved with proper administrative scaffolding.

While there is little to no conversation about how financial aid applies to the tangible room and board costs of studying abroad, there is even less dialogue about the invisible costs that students on aid will face when their plane finally touches down. Discovering local cuisine with new friends, additional luggage costs, souvenirs for friends and family and, of course, an occasional trip outside of Seville add up quickly. While thoughtful attention to spending can help to eliminate money stress, one thing that has really stuck out to me is the importance of traveling outside of your primary city while abroad.

Especially while studying in Europe, the access that I have gained to nearby countries and experiences is unmatched. For myself and my friends who are similarly reliant on aid, being based out of Spain while abroad has afforded us the opportunity to access other countries nearby. With nearly everyone hopping on a plane or train over the weekend to explore nearby places, this opportunity should not be lost to financial aid recipients solely because of their financial circumstances.

While there are study abroad scholarships available, they are hidden deep within the study abroad website and are rarely discussed as a viable option for funding. What’s more, these scholarships focus on particular locations and experiences. These funds are certainly helpful in theory, but they do little to address the everyday needs of full-time students who rely on income from their aid package to purchase necessities.

Setting aside our collective discomfort about discussing finances could make a huge difference in the experience of aid recipients at Pitzer. With increased transparency, resources and a communicative team of administrators, the abroad experience could be made much more accessible. I personally have felt so much connection and community care in speaking with students who have faced similar financial challenges in their study abroad experience. But these are conversations that I have had to seek out, and are very seldom.

Don’t take it the wrong way — as I sit typing this up in a cafe in Seville, Spain, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to spend a semester abroad. A little over one month into the fall term, I am already certain that it will have an immense impact on my education. But as I continue to navigate my financial circumstances in a new country, I want to push Pitzer and the 5C community to delve deeper into the often uncomfortable conversations surrounding equity of experience for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Klara Jacobs ’24 is currently studying abroad in Seville, Spain. When she’s not exploring new corners of the world, you can find her adding to her travel blog or browsing Skyscanner.com.

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