Ever since I could remember, my parents were adamant that I attend college. Being first-generation, however, meant accepting that I would have to navigate this process alone. The situation was no different when deciding to study abroad. But, like with college, that was not going to stop me.
Though attending college was expected of me, the notion of studying abroad was a concept so foreign to my parents. I knew it existed as part of the majority of college student experiences, but I did not expect to be able to do so myself. For many first-generation students, especially children of those in the Macedonian diaspora, it is often difficult to convince your parents that leaving home will be immensely beneficial to your academic and professional development.
Most of being first-gen requires that we change and adapt to environments we are unfamiliar with. It also comes with reassuring our parents that perhaps we do know what is best for us. But that is the life of first-generation students and it is a reality we are forced to come to terms with. However, I cannot reiterate enough how important it is to not cave to a system you are unfamiliar with or others’ opinions. If I had folded the cards and thrown my hands up in the air, I would not have made it where I am today, a senior studying at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. I also would not have had the invaluable opportunity to study abroad in the Czech Republic.
I will be the first to admit that the process was not easy, but I can assure you that it was worth it. If you find yourself dreaming of something that seems unattainable due to your family situation or financial barriers, I urge you to reach out to someone who has gone through the process. There are countless resources for first-generation college students; that is, if you are proactive and look for them. One of them is the U.S. State Department Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program. Contact your study abroad office asking if you can get in contact with other first-generation students to speak about their experiences. Most importantly, have a conversation with your parents or guardians if they are concerned about you leaving the country.
I can assure first-generation students that despite having all the odds stacked up against you academically and professionally, you are more than capable of pursuing and achieving your goals. Study abroad, especially for children of immigrants, is an opportunity to learn and mature in unprecedented ways. For myself, studying abroad enabled me to reclaim control over how I would shape my future academic and professional career. The experience also encouraged me to embrace my identity as a first-generation student even more than before because it reminded me of the struggles I have endured and let shape me to become the individual I am today. The experience enabled me to strangely find comfort in the unpredictability and instability of life.
Despite all the rough patches in between, especially with COVID-19, I would not trade my study abroad experience for the world. It taught me how to stay true to myself, to work hard, to remain resilient in the face of adversity, and to embrace uncertainty. Studying abroad enabled me to build mutual understanding and meaningful relationships through its encouragement of a diversity of values, beliefs, and opinions. This was the driving factor that pushed me to make the final decision to pursue my own path in learning about the world. The experience is more than just an opportunity to learn about world cultures, but also about discovering yourself through your strengths and weaknesses. If you are first-generation, keep working hard. I am here to tell you that you are qualified and more than capable of achieving whatever goals you have set for yourself. It is through taking such steps that you can experience personal growth and help redefine the first-generation student narrative.
Tips for First Generation College Students to Study Abroad
So, you want to study abroad? I am here to reassure you that if you have your heart set on this particular goal, it is achievable. Where there is a will, there is a way.
There is no doubt that with being first-generation comes the burden of navigating this process alone. With two immigrant parents, if I wanted to go abroad, I would have to take on the initiative to do so. It was a rollercoaster of an experience, but it was another lesson in my first-gen narrative.
Looking back, even though I was able to receive a great deal of help from my study abroad department and advisor, I wish I had a mentor who I could relate to throughout this process. I wish someone had told me how to do things differently, how to find resources more easily, or just to give me uplifting advice during the moments I wanted to just throw in the towel. If you are feeling as though you lack this as well, look no further! These are a few tips I hope can make the process a bit less stressful.
Embrace your First-Gen Identity
Your experience as a first-gen student has taught you so much – how to work hard, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to adapt, and to succeed. We owe it to ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities we are given and to not dwell on areas we may lack in. The chance to study abroad is the chance to embrace being a first-time learner once again. It is an opportunity to continue adapting to new environments, which you are quite familiar with already given how far you have come.
Be Proactive and Resourceful!
If you are on the fence about whether to study abroad, take the first step to contact your school’s study abroad department. There are people whose job it is to inform you of the opportunities the school offers and to make your dream of studying abroad come true. If financial barriers are preventing you from making a final decision, research scholarships and grants. There is money to support you out there if you search for it. Global Education departments, study abroad programs, and the government offer various scholarships and grants – and there are so many that apply to first generation college students! The Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship sponsored by the U.S. State Department is a grant that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad and to gain critical skills important to their academic and professional development. This program is especially unique as it addresses both the financial need and personal reasons individuals may not go abroad through its Follow-up Service Project.
Find a place you want to study abroad. Research the countries your school offers. If there is a location that is not offered, contact your advisor to see if you could apply for an independent study. I ended up choosing to study abroad in Prague for several reasons. I was drawn to the Czech Republic as it would enable me to travel easily to countries in the area and take advantage of the region my parents emigrated from. I was curious to learn another Slavic language and intrigued to live in a post-communist era country whose history of democracy and state-building interested me. Although my study abroad was cut short due to COVID-19, I could not have been happier with my 7 weeks in Prague. I was able to learn a bit of the language, learn the country’s rich history, and explore some amazing cities.
Budget, Plan, and Travel, Travel, Travel
Being financially responsible is crucial while abroad! The main categories you should focus on disbursing your budget are:
1. Daily expenses, such as transportation or groceries
2. Monthly bills, such as rent or cell phone payments
3. Night life and activities
The amount of money you will spend or save depends on the city you decide to live in. Prague for example, is relatively cheap to live in as compared to larger Western European countries. Travel from Prague is also cheap due to how connected it is by bus, train, and plane. If you are looking to travel on weekends, use apps that track ticket prices and notify you when a $20 roundtrip flight is available. Stay in hostels after checking ratings and making sure they are safe! Most importantly, travel smart! You don’t need to be eating at the most expensive restaurants, rather explore the local cuisine! Another cool thing about my study abroad program, CIEE, is that it regularly scheduled free activities for students to explore Prague and other Czech cities. Make sure to take advantage of these trips! I was able to go on a free trip to the Pilsen Brewery in Pilsen, watch a Shakespeare play at the National Theater, and visit numerous museums!
Stay in Touch with Family
Studying abroad is a scary experience for both you and your parents! I know you may just want to get away and unplug for a semester, but it is so important to stay connected. Though I am quite independent, I found it difficult to adjust without my parents being in the same time zone. I found myself wanting to pick up the phone and tell them how great of a day I was having and how much I loved the city, but the time difference made it difficult for us to catch each other at a reasonable time. It took a lot of back and forth to set up times and days to speak, but I always looked forward to seeing the excitement in their faces when they heard their daughter was able to travel the globe, a privilege they never had. Your family will always miss you and worry about you so just remember to shoot them a text with a picture of your coffee or a new place you just discovered to remind them you are thinking of them. It goes a long way!
Keep Yourself Grounded
It is so easy to get caught up in the rush of things when you are abroad! I think my biggest pitfall is agreeing to everything. Learn to say no and be selfish with your time. Remember to do things on your own time and do activities that make you happy. I appreciated taking time out of my day to take a walk along the Vltava River. I cherished getting on the morning tram and silently watching tourists stroll on the cobblestone sidewalks. Also remember to take time to do work because after all, you are still enrolled in university.
Be a Resource to Others
I cannot stress this enough! After you come home from your phenomenal study abroad, reflect on how far you have come in life and as an individual. Remember the struggles you endured as a first-generation student going through the process alone and look to how you can help lessen the burden on another. Coming home from Prague during the COVID-19 pandemic left me with a great deal of time to self-reflect on just this. My time abroad reminded me how grateful I am for all my parents have sacrificed to provide me with invaluable educational and self-growth opportunities. It reinvigorated a passion within me to share my experiences with other children of immigrants and first-generation students. It is so easy to get caught up in the busyness of life and forget that it is up to us to support and build up other first-gen students. We must remember that it is our duty to uplift the first-gen community. If we cannot do so ourselves, how can we expect others to?
Any opinions or views expressed in articles or other pieces appearing in UMD Voice are those of the author alone and are not necessarily those of the United Macedonian Diaspora and its young leaders’ program Generation M; the appearance of any such opinions or views in UMD Voice is not and should not be considered to be an endorsement by or approval of the same by UMD and Generation M.