The Ugly Side of Studying Abroad

It’s not always easy but in the end it’s worth it.

I don’t think there is a single person who would disagree with me when I say that traveling the world teaches you things that can’t be read in a book or learned in a classroom. There is so much value for young people to step out of their world and see things from new perspectives and understand humanity on a different level. That is why it frustrates me so much that they make it so difficult for students to study abroad.

*Disclaimer: This is my experience and mine alone. Other people may have had a simple and effortless time studying abroad but my experience has been far from that.

My professors and advisers helped me tremendously. They revised scholarship essays, answered every question that I threw at them, and talked me through my melt downs. My experience with university’s financial aid office has been nowhere near as supportive and informative. Granted, I realize that I am not the only student whose finances they are handling but if I were to have been informed better about what I was supposed to do it would have made my life and theirs much easy.

It started in March when I was trying to set up an appointment with the financial aid adviser specifically for students study abroad. In one month I had made 5 different appointments to speak to her and each time five minutes before or as I walked in the office my appointment would be cancelled. At one point I walked out of that office bawling because I felt so helpless. I was so early in the process I could not move any further in my application to go abroad without first meeting with a financial aid adviser.

When I did ultimately meet with someone it was with another person who couldn’t answer a single one of my question and had to keep walking into another office to ask about my questions. At the end of that meeting I broke down in tears again because they told me the country I wanted to go to would be out of my price range. I felt defeated.

I walked directly from that meeting across campus into my study abroad adviser’s office. Within a fifteen minute time frame I caught her up on what had just happened, she had called an ISEP representative asking about open spots because in the month it took me to get my meeting with financial aid I had missed the deadline for many countries, and I changed my country from South Africa to Morocco. Morocco was much more affordable yet still in Africa which is where I wanted to go. I wasn’t going to let money keep me from spending a semester abroad and fulfilling a personal dream of mine. There was no backing down and with help from my adviser I didn’t have to.

This is something I want to share with everyone I talk to about my experience studying abroad. My number one place was South Africa. I wanted to go to Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. I couldn’t though and instead of giving up and deciding that, “well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be” I chose to be flexible. In life and in traveling maybe more than other things flexibility is vital. What’s crazy is the closer I get to leaving for Morocco the more I feel like this is where I’m meant to go and it was supposed to work out this way.

Once I got my budget all figured out it was smooth sailing for a couple weeks until I needed money to pay for my placement fee in order to be accepted into my ISEP program. It was $400, that me as a broke college student didn’t just have laying around. Granted, I was working two jobs and living on my own so I had money but $400 was an entire months rent. I told my adviser this and she said I might be able to get an advance from the school. So I asked the financial aid for an advance on my return that I wouldn’t be getting until the fall. I had also received a pretty large study abroad scholarship from the school and a department scholarship both I had never received before but becasue I knew studying abroad was going to be expensive I worked my ass off to apply for more financial aid. My response from the financial aid office on my request for the advance was basically, no but in a much nicer and politically correct way.  They couldn’t give me any money because my balance for the fall didn’t cover my cost of attendance. Their answer for me… ‘have you seen our list of private loan providers.’

That made me so angry. I understand that I don’t have a surplus but their first response shouldn’t be to push students to private loan providers. I hadn’t even heard back from all my scholarships yet. So I was forced to ask my mom for help. Which is exactly what I didn’t want to do. I am the one studying abroad not my mom. I wanted to be able to do it on my own. But as I’ve learned that’s impossible.

What bothers me is that if your parents can’t help you it can be almost impossible to do it on your own. My advice to anyone who is planning on going or has even thought about going abroad is to start saving now. The moment you are accepted you are going to need close to $2,000 for application fees, insurances, shots, and other miscellaneous fees that you don’t think about because normally the ‘bill comes due’ in August. Expect to have to pay for at least a third or half of your budget on your own before your aid from the school comes.

Thankfully I have my mom to help me and I worked over the summer in order to pay for unexpected things that popped up.

Then August came around and I needed to by my plane tickets. I had waited all summer to hear back from this scholarship and I finally got the email telling me I had received it but it was going to be a couple of weeks before the money would be dispersed. So I decided to apply for a small private loan. Something I could pay back when I got my scholarship money before I left. My mom helped my fill out my application and she cosigned it for me. We got approved for a $3,500 loan and it was sent to the school for approval.

What the school doesn’t tell you when they show you their flashy list of lenders is that they pick the loan amount you don’t. They lowered the loan to $1,900 to ‘prevent over borrowing.’ Which I still don’t understand and it makes my blood boil to think about. Both me and my mom were approved for that specific amount. Without so much as an email or call they cut that amount in half, deciding what I need for me. The budget that is on my school account is $3,000 less than what the budget the study abroad office gave me. According to the school I’m only paying $500 for transportation. When in actuality I paid over $2,000 for my round trip tickets. My transportation and other costs are completely wrong according to the schools budget for me.

PLUS!! They hold on to that private loan you just applied for in order to pay for your plane tickets until refunds are handed out which for most students will not be until mid-September. My question is still!! How the hell are students supposed to know any of these things? And how on earth are students who don’t have parents who can help supposed to study abroad? If the answer is well they should have saved or thought ahead or worked harder… I want to stop you. I worked so hard. I am receiving more in scholarship for this semester than I ever have in my life. I poured my heart out in personal essays and asked everyone I know for advice and I did all of that while going to school full time, working two jobs, and maintaining my grades.

So I didn’t get my loan money my mom had to help me again…. I would just like to add that my mom is a single mother that works for the National Guard and supports her three children. She is awesome and she works her ass off in order to be able to help me and my bothers do anything and everything we put our minds to.

My hardship with financial aid still didn’t end there. I got a notification from the school that there was a hold on my account because I had a past due bill from the summer and previous semester. So they withheld my transcript that I needed to turn in for a scholarship. Something I will never understand is why every semester the school makes students pay for past bills when in three weeks they are about to write them a return check for thousands of dollars. Many students can’t pay their past due bills and end up not returning because they can’t afford it. Thankfully, I got that figured out and got my transcript turned in.

Three days ago it hit me that I am leaving next week and I still haven’t gotten any money from the school. So I call the financial aid office, I know based on my financial aid award letter that I now have a surplus so it should be no problem getting an advance on my return becasue that what they told me in May, ‘you need to have a surplus.’ Well surprise that’s not the only thing you need.

I called the financial aid office three times in one day and couldn’t get a hold of them because the phone line kept giving me a busy tone. I told my mom this and she said maybe there is something wrong with their phones. She told me to try calling another office and see if they can transfer you to them. So I tried it. It worked! They transferred me right there and someone picked up instantly.

I talked to the student at the front desk and he told me that I’m going to need proof as to why I need an advance. I told him I’m studying abroad. He said yeah, but we need like screenshot of plane tickets or something to prove what I’ll be spending the money on. I couldn’t believe there was another hoop I needed to jump through. I am leaving the country and I’m going to have to wait three weeks before I have any money because I have literally spent every cent to my name on this trip. I started to get really overwhelmed and started asking why I need proof… I AM LEAVING THE UNITED STATES…. that seems like proof enough, but that’s just me. Well once my voice starts to get all shaky he tells me to hold and he puts my on the phone with the lady I needed to talk to the ENTIRE time. Like are you serious I needed to almost start crying before you handed the phone to the person who handles this kind of thing as her full time job.

So I talked to the lady who has given me such a hard time over the last six months and she tells me all I need to do is send her an email saying I’m leaving August 20th and I would like an advance before I go… I wanted to say are you kidding me. I talked in circles with two different people for 20 minutes, almost started crying, and that is all I needed. I was relieved and wanted to scream at the same time.

I got off the phone and sent her the email instantly. That was three days ago and I haven’t heard anything since. I am hopeful that things are processing but being that I leave in 7 days I’m worried I’m going to get on a plane with $20 in my bank account.

I wanted to share my not so ideal experience with financial aid to show the ugly side of studying abroad. I want to show other students that maybe what they’re going through is similar to my experience and that it pays off in the end. It’s so easy for students to make it look simple and glamorous when all they share is photos of themselves while they’re in country but that isn’t the full story. It’s hard. There will be times when you question if it’s worth it both emotionally and financially. But I promise you it will worth it. For me being this close and looking back at all I’ve gone through the feeling of having everything taken care of is so rewarding. I never backed down and with the help of family I am about to take the journey of a lifetime.

 

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

 

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