Studying Abroad as a First Generation Student
Aileen, Florence, Spring 2019
June 27, 2019

When I submitted my application to Colorado State University, I was unsure. Any uncertainty, you name it, I had it. Deciding to study abroad in Florence, Italy was no different. I was extremely unsure. Yes it sounds amazing—spoiler alert: it is, but I was worried about everything under the sun. It felt like my senior year of high school all over again because it was the start of a new process that I knew nothing about, this time again, I couldn’t turn to my parents for navigational help.

But that’s the life of a first generation student.

Majority of being a first generation student is having to change and adapt; it is not a consequence or disability. It is something to take pride in because being on our own during such an important time in our lives isn’t easy. Being a first generation student comes with many obstacles and responsibilities that many of our peers may never have to face. It’s part of being the first in your family to attend college, paving the path for future generations. When I began the college admission process, it was difficult not being able to ask my parents for help because it was as new to them as it was to me. Fast forward three years later…beginning the process to study abroad felt eerily familiar.

Despite not knowing how to work the system, I didn’t cave. Instead, I took the time to learn and ask all the questions I needed answers to. There is so much that goes in to studying abroad from the loads of paperwork, visas, permits to arranging being gone for four months—the list felt endless sometimes. When I had my Italian Visa appointment I must’ve looked over the documents in my manila folder at least eight times before I left and despite having checked all the items on my list, I was worried I missed something. Somehow I didn’t miss anything, and I don’t want you too either—keep these four tips in mind if you’re a first generation student thinking of studying abroad!

Tips for Studying Abroad as a First Generation Student:
1. There is money everywhere—if you look. Keep an eye out for scholarships! Sometimes scholarships come from your school, major department or study abroad program (SAI!!). Some scholarships are even specific for first generation students abroad, which is something I didn’t know about until deciding to take the leap. Also, connect with your home school’s study abroad and financial aid to learn how to use your financial aid, raise money, or how to write a sponsorship letter!

2. Research. Once you have jumped through the financial hoop and have a solid plan for expenses, begin your research on your new home for the next four months! Take the time to read up on your host city and country to learn more about their history, language and culture. This applies to all forms of arts and landmarks, 10/10 if you learn about something prior to seeing it in person, it’ll be so much more surreal because you know its meaning, purpose and history attached. Also research the places you want to visit ahead of time so that you can make most of your time abroad. This isn’t research for a history paper, its researching wild and new opportunities. Once you fall down the travelling research rabbit hole, you’ll never come out! Explore your options and possibilities! Get excited for the opportunity of a life time!

*Remember to relay your research to your family, even the most mundane details (trust me they want to know all the logistics).

3. Keep your family involved! Remember how scary, new and exciting college was? Studying abroad is too! For me studying abroad was my first time ever travelling outside of a three-state radius and it was a full-on family affair. When we travelled to new places I couldn’t wait to call my parents and tell them all about it.
During my time abroad, WhatsApp and Facetime were a gift sent from the tech gods. I was homesick often, given that I was so far from Colorado and my family. It became even more difficult around the time my peers began sharing their excitement with me because their parents or their siblings were coming out to visit them. I would squeal in excitement for them, but cry a little on the inside because there was nothing I wanted more. This was easily one of the hardest things I experienced while abroad because the idea of my family coming out to visit me was not feasible and although it was one of the most emotionally challenging times in my life, it made coming home much sweeter. I remember one of the times I was missing my mom, I found myself inside Sephora devouring the scent of the perfume she wears. A little unconventional, maybe weird but it worked! If you find yourself getting homesick, give your family a call! Fill them in on this new life of yours, I’ll bet you some gelato that they’re dying to hear about it. My mom and I became the closest we’ve ever been while being thousands of miles apart. Distance is the hardest part of studying abroad at times, but in our age its impossible to disconnect from the world.

4. Embrace who you are. As a first generation student you are an independent go-getter who is resourceful and has an amazing work ethic. You have faced and overcome obstacles no one expected you to, you’re in a place no one would have ever expected you to be in. See as first generation students we are breaking the barriers that have stood in our families for generations. Furthering our education is not much of a want as it is a need for the ones that came before us and will come after. We’re in places that were not ideally created for us, but we’re not conventional and neither are our methods—we deserve to represent ourselves loud and proud in these spaces. Studying abroad sometimes felt like it just wasn’t for me, but who is to say what isn’t or what is for you? Break the barriers, learn, travel, love and cherish your time abroad as a first generation student! Studying abroad was such a sentimental experience for my family and I because the newlywed couple who left poverty and violence in Mexico for a better life in the United States—they never thought they would be sending their daughter to study overseas for months on end. My experience abroad reinforced my gratitude and love towards my parents, because through all their hard work and sacrifices they have given me a world filled with love, support, affirmations, and opportunity.

Now that I have returned home after such an incredible experience, I have had so much time to reflect on the past four months. Studying abroad was the greatest decision I could have ever made. Yes, I had my bad days but at least they were bad days in Italy! I struggled being alone in a foreign country, but it’s more way more fun than it is scary. Give yourself the opportunity to grow and learn! Returning from my study abroad experience has made me embrace my identity as a first generation student even more than before because it reminded me how incredible it was to have experienced all that I did. It also reminded me how important it is to educate and encourage more first generation families on the marvelous experience it is to study abroad in Florence, Italy with the help of SAI’s genuine, attentive and caring team.

And if you too are a first generation student, I’m rooting for you! Keep working hard! Si se puede!

If you still need some convincing, check out my ABC’s of Florence Blog Post!

Aileen was a Spring 2019 Florence student from Colorado State University.

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