5 tips for studying abroad on a budget

By Jenna Ladd

I’ll let you in on a secret: I thought studying abroad was reserved for people with money. Or people with parents with money. As it turned out, one only needs to apply a bit of elbow grease and do some research to be launched from low-income home to an undefined destination half way across the world. I will say, however, my journey would have been much simpler had I followed some sort of guide, or mentor, or...something. Alas, that is why I am writing! To record on the interwebs forever a step-by-step guide for a low-resource student from the University of Iowa to experience the joys and wonder of studying in another land, without having to live on rice and beans while abroad and/or taking on thousands of dollars in (additional) student debt.

Jenna in front of the countrysideJenna explored the Basque countryside during a weekend excursion

1. Choose a destination. If you have limited U.S. dollars to spend, it is important to think about how far your U.S. dollars will take you in a given country. That being said, the most important part of choosing a destination city is to select a country, city, and university that aligns with your personal and professional goals. Basically, think about what you are looking to get out of an experience, and what place is best suited to meet those expectations. The best way to begin narrowing down destination options is to visit the University of Iowa Study Abroad office. Now, you may wonder when this entire process should start. In my opinion, the earlier the better. It is wise to get a general idea of the full cost of the program as soon as possible so that you may begin exploring your funding options. I began looking at programs over a year before I departed for Spain and found that I had ample time to write scholarship essays and plan financially.

2. Choose a program. Now that you have chosen the city or town in which you wish to study, it is time to choose which program you’d like to work through to have the best experience possible. In terms of making the transfer of credits from a foreign university more seamless, I recommend studying with a program that works directly with the University of Iowa for credit allotment. I choose United Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and had no problems with the transfer of my credits. A second crucial thing to consider is the total cost of the program. When comparing cost, be sure to figure in an estimated cost for airfare as it is almost never included in program fees. Also, take a moment to think about whether you’d like to live with a host family from the destination country, or take up residence in an apartment with other students. Usually, when living with a host family three meals a day are included whereas in an apartment students are responsible for purchasing their own food. Be realistic with yourself about how much money you think you would spend on groceries vs eating out if you were to live alone.

walking through forest in Bilbao
Jenna described the unique and beautiful Oma forest like “something from my dreams”

3. Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships. Here is where the fun begins! Before beginning the application process, you must find out about all of the scholarships you can and choose those for which you are best suited. A good place to start is asking your study abroad advisor about scholarships the University of Iowa offers (there are a lot) and about reliable websites with links to more possible scholarships. There are many University scholarships that are specific to various regions and countries, as well as the Diversity Ambassador, Merit-based, and Need-based scholarships. Any student studying abroad can apply for these and as a student of limited means, you may have a good chance of being selected for the diversity or need-based scholarships. Next, make sure to utilize the scholarship resources your advisor has given to you, and start their applications as soon as you can to be sure to turn in a quality application.

4. Apply for the Gilman. I was turned on to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program by my study abroad advisor, and I decided to take a risk and apply. There are many parts to the Gilman application so again: START EARLY. You want to give yourself the best chance of being selected and in order to do that, you must turn in your best work. To me, the most important parts of this application are the written pieces. Remember, the selection committee has no idea who you are. You must do your best to pour your spirit onto paper because that is all they have to go off of. If you are unsure of your writing and have allowed enough time, be sure to utilize the University of Iowa Writing Center. Remember to value yourself in your statements of purpose or other written portions of scholarship applications. Think critically about not only what you have to gain from an international learning experience, but what you have to offer a given program or place. Understand that your background and experiences are unique, and that is valuable. You must explain candidly why you deserve the opportunity to see the world and understand other cultures. Applications are not the time to be humble, remember that.

Jenna sits at dinner table with host family
Jenna enjoys a traditional Spanish lunch with her host family

5. Save money while you’re abroad. So, you’ve got your scholarships and you’ve made the leap: You’re abroad! There are a few money-saving tips I’d like to offer.

  • Street food is where it’s at. There are tons of street vendors in most cities selling cheap, delicious food. If you’re eating out of the house, this is a thrifty way to eat what the locals do, and trust me, it’s delicious!
  • Book your flights early. If you’re planning to do any traveling while you’re abroad try to plan out when you’re going ahead of time and buy tickets then. This is usually how you’ll get the best prices be it plane or train.
  • Carry a card with current U.S. dollar to local currency conversion rates on it. This is especially useful in countries where the U.S. dollar is worth less. Don’t let your money sneak away from you because you forgot to consider conversion rates!
  • Don’t worry about shopping. Remember that material items will eventually fail you, but you’ll always have the memories you’ve made while abroad. Don’t waste money on material goods if it means you’ll miss out on a trip or a cultural experience!
  • Be sure to withdraw money from your U.S. banking account in large amounts, leaving most of it in a secure location and carrying a small amount with you, in order to avoid the frequency in which service charges are applied.

In review, the most important thing to remember throughout this entire process is to take a risk. Do not operate under the assumption that only the wealthy can afford to travel. If you are a hard-working student, chances are someone wants to see you go abroad, and you deserve it! Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds weave diversity into study abroad cohorts, projecting a different view of the American student to foreign citizens. Just as we are learning about the splendid, diverse ways of the world, we are enriching and shaking up the common conceptions of tourists from the United States. Just as we owe it to the cultures of the world to explore their ways of life, we also owe them a more honest picture of the social fabric of the United States.

Jenna Ladd is a UI senior majoring in sociology with a minor in Spanish from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Read more about Jenna's experiences abroad on her blog, She's Gone In-Spain.

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