In the spring semester of 2015, I studied abroad in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, for five months. I frequently found myself feeling caught between the cost of doing something and the cost of missing an experience that, for me, would be extremely rare. Before my first transnational trip to California last summer, when I accompanied my mom on a subsidized business trip, she told me, “We can’t really afford it, but we can’t afford not to do it.”
I felt the same way about my study abroad experience. I have never and will never be able to visit Europe that cheaply again. Without my financial aid refund in hand to pay for five months of rent in central London and part of a round-trip international flight, I would not have been able to go.
I was privileged to be able to study abroad. But entering a new environment blurred class lines in my mind all over again. I met only one other American student in London who admitted to receiving financial aid. In contrast, I was told by a fellow student at my host university, University College London, that we are part of an elite network of privileged students from top schools able to study abroad. I never considered myself part of an “elite” group before. This student tried hard to project and spread self-awareness of his socioeconomic privilege to someone he assumed was another upper-class college student. But few people I met considered that lower-income students would be abroad or how they would deal with that situation.
Nevertheless, I did have to consider how much my life resembled the elite network of which this person spoke and how it has changed since I began attending Georgetown. We did both have the privilege of studying abroad. I lived in the heart of the privileged area of Bloomsbury in London. I traveled throughout the United Kingdom and went twice to continental Europe during my five months abroad. I was undeniably on track to be part of the upper-middle class. I felt initially that the study abroad experience was an equalizing one.
It proved to be far from it. The experiences I was having sometimes made me feel isolated from my home life and often presented new financial challenges. I felt many bittersweet moments when I had cultural experiences abroad that I knew my family members or friends from home would enjoy. But no one from home could come visit me.
While Georgetown does offer additional scholarship aid to cover the costs of studying abroad, any decently priced plane ticket must be booked before the money comes through, meaning a student must have the means to pay out of pocket before being reimbursed. A work visa in the United Kingdom $600, a scary fee to pay for someone with slim job prospects.
And as anyone who has studied abroad knows, many more things can go wrong in a foreign country than at home. It is hard for a young person to elegantly fix the kinds of gaffs that will inevitably occur without extra cash on hand. Things as simple as postage and as important as medical bills in another country are costly. When I had both a medical problem, I tried both to go to the National Health Service and use Georgetown’s international insurance coverage at a private hospital. The NHS’s free clinic did not have the facilities to treat me and the private hospital would not accept Georgetown’s insurance. I had to charge a couple hundred pounds, about $300, on a credit card, which not everyone can do.
I would recommend studying abroad to anyone, including students on financial aid. You might not really be able to afford it, but consider that you can’t afford not to. Just know that your experience will have unique limitations and challenges no one talks about at the Study Abroad Open House.
Laura Owsiany is a senior in the College. Missing Class appears every other Friday.
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