Kellianne King: Make study abroad affordable for everyone

I am about to head home after spending five months in Dublin. Studying abroad has brought new friends, unforgettable sight-seeing and, of course, a lot of Guinness.

But it has also brought plenty of financial stress.

Several times a month, I found myself anxiously checking my bank balance, particularly before buying tickets to a theater performance or taking a train trip to visit the countryside. I am fortunate to have the financial means to study abroad, but that isn’t an option for everybody.

The Office for Study Abroad must do more to ensure that the global University it seeks to create isn’t divided by class.

And as the Board of Trustees approved a decade-long strategic plan Friday that calls for investments in making study abroad more affordable, the University should immediately consider a small way to do this: adding a cultural reimbursement component to its programs.

The Boston University Madrid program, for example, invites students to save receipts from “cultural experiences” – anything from a soccer game to a bullfight to visiting a famous palace – and turn them in every two weeks so they can be reimbursed. While some activities don’t make the cut, an impressively large and varied number do.

Such an approach liberates students from constantly worrying about which cultural experiences they’ll have to forego for financial reasons. It shows a commitment to making sure students embrace the opportunities at their disposal.

On the surface, low-income students appear to get a sufficient global experience at GW. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients who study abroad – 10 percent – is about the same as the ratio at GW overall. The University’s tuition transfer policy – where students pay the same bill overseas as they do in D.C. – has helped, and the study abroad office also offers some small scholarships if students blog about their experience or perform community service.

But once students arrive at their destination, they are faced with a tough choice: go to that cultural event, or save money? Months into my time abroad, I still cringe at the conversion rate when buying groceries, let alone the costs of immersing myself in Irish culture.

If GW is truly committed to assisting its students in expanding their educational experience, it should do more than make an enriched study abroad experience possible only for some. The University doesn’t have to cover every museum, as clear guidelines can define which events merit reimbursements. Students will still bear the responsibility of making sure they can support themselves abroad and fund some of their own activities.

Rather, the University should work to make trips overseas as enriching an experience as possible, thereby justifying a student’s decision to leave campus for a semester or two. The University should take to heart that frequenting local museums, going to the theater or visiting a new city are not extras tacked onto time abroad, but are key elements of the study abroad experience.

After all, if students aren’t engaging in local culture, there isn’t much point to being abroad.

Kellianne King is a junior majoring in history.

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