Study abroad: It’s not just for rich kids anymore

OneWorld Now! students from last summer's trip to Morocco, where students lived with host families, performed community service and sudied Arabic for a month. (Photo courtesy OneWorld Now!)

International travel can be a defining moment in a young person’s life. But without help, financial and cultural barriers will keep a lot of young Americans from ever getting outside our borders.

Mexico City made me a journalist.

At 22, I signed up for a volunteer-abroad program and was assigned to work at a women’s media nonprofit.

I showed up with broken Spanish and the writing experience of a melodramatic diarist and left six months later determined to become a reporter in the mold of the hard-boiled, razor-sharp women I had worked with.

That experience has guided much of my life — all the way to starting my own media nonprofit years later. So when Liliana Caracoza, a young reporter I mentor, told me she wanted to go to southern Mexico to volunteer with an indigenous-rights organization, I was all for it.

Caracoza, 19, is facing the typical challenges of volunteering abroad — what to bring, where to stay, how to get the cheapest flight.

But she’s grappling with more than just logistics.

“I can tell you that the majority of those who go abroad are Caucasian and affluent,” says Kristin Hayden, Founder and Executive Director of OneWorld Now!, a Seattle-based nonprofit that takes underserved youth on trips abroad, primarily to China and the Middle East.

Hayden says the disparity can often be blamed on a lack of resources — something Caracoza can relate to.

Caracoza moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 11. She works two jobs — as a barista and in a warehouse — to help support her family while also attending Tacoma Community College.

“For me it’s a really privileged thing (to go abroad),” says Caracoza, who adds that the only people she knows who have traveled are in the military. “People like me, we can’t afford to not worry about money.”

To defray some of the costs, she’s already received donations from family and friends, and is running an online campaign through the fundraising site Kickstarter.


Liliana Caracoza’s Kickstarter fundraising video.

And while many young people have to fundraise to go abroad (I saved money from my own barista job and hit up people in my network for help), there are often more barriers than just the cost of travel.

Many of the young people Hayden works with have to make financial contributions to their families. Others are children of immigrants who struggled to get to the U.S. and don’t understand the desire to go abroad again.

She cites a recent study by the Institute of International Education that revealed that almost 80 percent of all college students who study abroad are white.

“They never saw this as possible for themselves,” she says of her students. “And even if you’re telling them, ‘No, this is possible. Don’t let money get in the way’ … it’s still a huge mental leap.”

If they don’t make that leap, it could hold them back. In an increasingly globalized world, international experience is valuable to colleges and employers. Like the controversy over unpaid internships (and who can or can’t afford that kind of résumé-building experience) the disparity in volunteer and study-abroad opportunities could have deep implications.

“Global education is more critical now that we live in a totally connected world,” says Bookda Gheiser of Global Washington, an organization that advocates for internationally focused education. (Global Washington is a sponsor of The Seattle Globalist.)

Caracoza agrees. She’s passionate about the work she’ll be doing (specifically supporting victims of domestic violence), eager to learn more about her Mexican roots and looking to have an experience that might help her “stand out” in college essays (she hopes to transfer to a four-year university within a year).

But more than anything wants an adventure — an opportunity to figure out what she’s made of.

“I want to see different perspectives and different lives,” she says, her voice barely containing her excitement. “I want to know it all … I want to see who I am.”

Who can’t relate to that?

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

1 Comment

  1. I entirely agree with this article: It is true that money can be an issue, but its weight in the decision making process about studing abroad is more psychological than the actual funding issue. Study Abroad appears as a very inaccessible experience to many students, because of psychological barriers.

    I encourage all the person interested in this topic to have a look at two things:

    1) a video put together by the Office of International Programs at SF State University, called “Breaking Barriers” (see the 7minutes short version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCWNTx9IFnI)

    2) check out the website of Diversity Abroad, which advocate for study abroad being more representative of the US student population http://www.diversityabroad.com/

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