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Studying Abroad: Affording It

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When I tell people that my entire year abroad in Sweden is funded by scholarships, “lucky” is often one of the first words off their lips. I personally find the frequency of this occurrence rather surprising. It’s somewhat akin to the phenomenon of the losing sport team or army calling the victors simply ‘lucky.’ True, there may have been a few factors favoring one side or the other from the beginning. But in fact, luck doesn’t have all that much to do with it. I realize I’m spouting clichés here, but when it comes down to it, anything is possible. You can do anything you like and go anywhere you choose…but it’s just that, a choice. A choice to motivate yourself, prepare yourself, and keep an eye out for opportunities. So if you’ve made the choice to study abroad but worry about funding your adventures, read on. If you’re uncertain, you might as well close the page now, for while I will point you to resources that helped me, none of them offers handouts. We’re talking about work, and sometimes an awful lot of it. But hey, some wise man once said, “Nothing worthwhile is easy!”

So you’ve decided to take your educational career into new lands. Congratulations! How are you going to pay for it? Well, the first step in answering this question might be to examine your country of choice. To risk being accused of blatant advertising and being somewhat biased, there are several Nordic countries which impose no tuition fees on international students. Finland and Norway, for example, are two countries where it’s free to study at university, and Germany also has several such institutions. However, you must keep in mind that this only applies to “free movers,” or students who apply to the school on their own and not through an exchange program. If you want to continue being a student of your home university and simply go on an exchange period, there will certainly be fees no matter where you choose to study. While at first this may sound like a turn-off, there are actually huge benefits to going as part of an exchange program. For one thing, a vast majority of exchange programs take care of housing themselves and guarantee you a student apartment near your school. As a free mover, particularly within Europe, you may find that the task of securing a student room is extraordinarily difficult. In some countries there are waiting lists of up to two years!

But regardless of whether you go as an exchange student or a free mover, you will incur other costs. Have you considered the cost of living? Where and what are you going to eat? Surely you won’t want to stay locked in your room or your apartment the entire time, so how will you afford extracurricular activities or fun with friends? What’s the cost of getting around on public transportation, if applicable? Do your research before you go! In addition, check out some of these resources. Keep in mind that many of these are only applicable to students on exchange programs, and not free movers.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid):

I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. By this point you probably know all there is to know about FAFSA. But don’t even consider just skipping over it for your year abroad. Most federal financial aid that you gain through FAFSA can in fact be applied to your study abroad period, at least if you go on an exchange (this frequently is not true of free movers). And if you think you’re not eligible, try anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised, so it’s worth the little bit of extra time and effort!

The Benjamin A. Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship:

I cannot possibly praise this scholarship fund enough. Heck, if I had any musical skills, I would write a song worshiping the Benjamin Gilman scholarship! If you’re a US citizen and will be studying abroad for at least four weeks in another country, then this could be your savior! It is given through the government, but you won’t be considered for it just by filling out your FAFSA forms, so don’t forget about this one. They offer grants of up to $5,000! Like many scholarships, you will have to complete some sort of follow-on project upon your return to the US, but really, you’re still getting the better end of the deal. The only catch is that you must be a Pell Grant recipient either at the time of your application or during your study abroad. Thank goodness for “or”…I lost my Pell Grant for my year abroad, but still received this scholarship since I was a Pell Grant recipient at the time I applied!

Your Study Abroad Office:

Your counselors are there for a reason; use them. Talk to them about your program and plans, and let them direct you to their own resources. Our very own Study Abroad Office here at the University of Utah offers scholarships of up to $3,500 when you’re studying abroad for a year, and $2,500 if you’re only going for a semester. They offer two different types of scholarships as well, one by lottery (so there is a little luck involved) and one by merit, so make sure to apply! They can also direct you to their own wonderful list of outside scholarships, which you can find on the U’s website.

Outside Organizations:

This might be where a little more work is required. Are you a member of any special groups, clubs, or fraternities outside of school? A surprising number of them offer scholarships. Even your local bank, such as Wells Fargo or Mountain America, may very well offer scholarships (and these two do). Try joining other societies as well. I am a proud member of the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish-American association which meets monthly and enjoys engaging in cultural activities and preserving our heritage. I was granted a significant stipend from the organization which helped me massively, and I made lifelong friends at the same time. Think about what attributes you have and what relevant associations might exist. Also check out your local Rotary club and even grocery stores. (Note: Salt Lake City does not yet have a Vasa lodge. If you are interested in becoming a member, send me an email!)

Fastweb.com:

If all else fails, or you still need more funds, then it can’t hurt to check out a couple of the online scholarship-finders. Fastweb.com allows you to search for scholarships based on a wide range of criteria, including your major and other possible eligibility requirements, as well as your own locale. You can save possible scholarship opportunities to a separate folder and go through and apply later. Thousands or perhaps millions of students use the website, so the competition may be steep, but it’s worth a shot.

After you’ve checked out the above resources, there’s really only one more bit of advice I can give you: Start early. If at all possible, don’t wait until three months before your study abroad to start searching for funds. Don’t even wait until you have just one more semester left. If you’re remotely considering going on a study abroad trip sometime in the next year, or even year and a half, start looking for scholarship opportunities now. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said (or Brittany Murphy in the film Little Black Book, if you prefer), “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” He may have died centuries ago, but the statement is as true now as it was then. Today is the first day of the rest of your life, so get going and make it the best it can be!