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“Traveling While First in The Pack” Empowers First-Generation To Study Abroad

As part of International Education Month, the Study Abroad Office held a panel discussion on traveling abroad as a first-generation college student. 

The panel was led by Zakiya Covington who serves as the academic success coordinator for TRIO student support services. The panel consisted of three former study abroad students who shared their excitement, expectations, hesitations, fears, and overall experiences of studying abroad as a first-generation college student with event participants. 

Meet the Panelists

First to introduce himself was Oscar Meja Barahona (he/him/his) who graduated in 2020 with a B.S. in nutrition sciences and a former Global Diversity Advocate. He studied abroad for one semester at Instituto Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy.

Next was Shaquilla Hamlet (she/her/hers) who graduated back in 2018 with a B.S. in animal science with a minor in creative writing. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in marine biology. Shaquilla studied abroad in Costa Rica in 2016 through an organization called International Student Volunteers that gave her the opportunity to go abroad during the summer to get hands-on conservation experience.

The last panelist was Roma Bustillos (she/her/hers). Roma is a current graduate student in the international studies program with a concentration in higher education. While completing her undergraduate degree at UNC Charlotte, she studied abroad in Spain, participated in an alternative spring break program in Guatemala, and two other programs in Italy, Spain, France and Monaco. 

Getting A Headstart 

“Thinking ahead is important,” says Oscar who started his search for his study abroad program about a year prior to going abroad. “I had a bunch of friends who studied abroad but I was confused about what I could do, so I actually met with Kyle Keith, Assistant Director of Study Abroad, who helped me figure out which classes and programs would work for me.” 

headshot of Oscar Meja Barahona
Oscar Meja Barahona

The cost of studying abroad is a major factor that prohibits students from going abroad. Shaquilla always thought that studying abroad was unrealistic for her simply due to the lack of financial resources. However, NC State as well as the Study Abroad Office offers NC State Scholarships,  resources, and guidance to help students find the financial aid they need. Both Roma and Shaquilla were recipients of the prestigious Gilman scholarship which awards up to $5k per student. They encourage students to apply for as many opportunities as possible for funding. “I applied to 20 scholarships but only received two,” says Roma. “There are plenty of resources available though – you just need to look. Get Schooled is a great website that I found very helpful.” 

Keeping an Eye on Finances While Abroad

While exploring new cultures and countries, it is easy to forget about financial responsibilities at home, such as paying rent and phone bills. It is even easier to go over budget while exploring a new country. To also meet financial responsibility at home, Shaquilla put her bills on auto-payment before leaving the U.S.

Roma Bustillos during her study abroad.
Roma Bustillos

“I learned from past mistakes,” says Roma. “Definitely do your research on your credit card and find out how much fees will be taken out.” Generally, all three panelists recommend being mindful of your spending habits during your semester abroad.  

Experiencing Culture Shock

“Moving to Europe was a huge thing for me, “ says Oscar. I went with a classmate who was also a first-generation student, so we’re kind of ‘in it together’ which made it less scary to have a friend.” Due to his Hispanic background, Oscar sometimes got mistaken by the locals as Italian which was definitely an unusual experience for him. For anyone going abroad to Italy, he also highly recommends dressing your best to be on-par with the Italians. 

Unlike Oscar, Roma did not know a lot of people to ask questions to, especially as a first-generation college student. Once she returned from her study abroad, she became a resource to other first-generation students to spread her love for this unique and existing experience. 

Studying Abroad Is For Everyone

Thinking back to her time in Costa Rica, Shaquilla still beams with excitement. “It was empowering to know I could basically go to another country that’s not home and thrive in it. It was amazing seeing what other countries value and how they do things and I think it really broadened my horizon and made me more confident.” 

Three women taking a group photo during a hike in a forest in Costa Rica.
Shaquilla Hamlett in Costa Rica.

Similarly, Roma’s study abroad experience inspired her to give back to students. “I want to be able to help minority students, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities to also experience study abroad.” Roma put her words into action as she currently works as the Graduate Intern for the Study Abroad Office focusing on student outreach and engagement.

The Study Abroad Office is working diligently to make study abroad a reality for as many students as possible. The Summer 2022 Program and Scholarship Applications are now open.  Please check the Identity-Based Resources, the NC State Study Abroad Scholarship as well.

This post was originally published in Office of Global Engagement.