Life changing experience
How do you explain a life changing experience in a far away country with family members who have never left the community in which they were born? And how do you even get to that far away country when your financial aid package does not cover transportation and living expenses?
Reflections on the study abroad experience by first generation students highlight the unique challenges these students face and the great benefits they reap. Research results point to the positive impact of the study abroad experience upon first generation students. An experience powerful enough to contribute to college retention and spark crucial questions about identity and agency is certainly worth exploring.
Knowledge Without Borders will spend the next year interviewing first generation students to create a mosaic of their unique insights on the study abroad experience. In our first interview with Shadura Lee of Brown University, who studied in India, she explained how she used the experience of eating Indian food to build a bridge between New Delhi and Trenton, New Jersey.
The Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University has set up a blog for first generation students to reflect on the unique nature of their experiences. These student blogs reveal how first gens approach study abroad, how it influences their feelings about their identity, and how it can act as a catalyst for future pursuits both in school and in their adult lives.
Andrew, a first generation student currently studying in England, reflects on his family of origin and identity. He writes:
So with tears in her eyes she told me she wishes she could’ve given me a better life. … Well what mother wouldn’t? Yet, I had never stopped to think of all the sacrifices and hardships she had undergone simply to survive … Well, as I got on the plane I realized something. As a first generation student I have felt alone and unequipped for most of my academic career, and at that moment I realized that I had never been alone. … As the plane took off I realized that for once in my life I felt like I understood my place. I finally accepted who I was, who my family was, and how they shaped the person I am. So, I arrive to London with a mission to further understand the parts of my identity I so naively neglected.
Gillian writes about her perceived lack of academic preparation:
I’m afraid I won’t be intellectually prepared for the rigorous academic standards of Oxford. And most of all, I’m scared that I won’t have the amazingly-incredible-once-in-a-lifetime-experience that I’ve imagined in my head for the past year.
Austin writes about how he prepared both for college and study abroad in Costa Rica:
… I tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for an experience that I really did not know much about. I did not grow up with stories of my parents’ college experiences. … Many people say that college was the best four years of their lives, but aside from stereotypical representations of college, I did not know what I was in for. The same is true about studying abroad. [Since being abroad,] … my dad broke his ankle and leg, and would be out of work for weeks. For me, the biggest impact this had was related to money, since my dad is the main bread winner in our family by a mile and it’s not like we are rich or very comfortable to begin with.
Allison writes from Mexico:
To all the other first generation college students out there, I feel you. I know what it’s like to enter into a world of academic rigor never before experienced by someone in the family and that it can be difficult to find your way through it all. The wonderful thing about being a first generation college student is that we all are capable of venturing out on our own and making things happen. It takes a special type of person to break the routine set forth by all your predecessors and embark on a journey completely different. That’s what I want to focus on: that ability to step out and go against the grain. … I can do much more than be a first generation college student, I can be an independent traveler, I can be an entrepreneur, I can be a starving artist, I can be what I wish because I know that the only one who can make things happen and follow through with my dreams is my own self.
Collecting stories through interviews and blogs help define relevant issues of first generation students themselves. Data generated from these stories form a foundation for solutions to make study abroad possible for every first generation student who desires to experience another culture.