How To Literally Study Abroad

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By Ronnie Charrier

            I’ve been getting asked a lot lately about how I can afford to travel so much.  Aren’t you supposed to be in school they ask.  I am.  I wish I could afford to travel like you they add.  You can. 

            Over the past 2 ½ years I’ve been to fourteen countries across four continents.  I’ve been to the Colosseum.   I’ve seen the Eifel Tower.  I’ve swum in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.  I’ve been rock climbing on the beaches of Thailand and jumped off a waterfall in Costa Rica.  I did all of this while finishing my degree at the University of Washington (with a 3.4 GPA).  And to be completely honest with you, it wasn’t that difficult.

            Some people who read this are going to say that I was ‘cheating’ the system.  But they’d be wrong, mostly.  Travel was just on my mind.  A lot.  And whenever I was faced with a tricky situation, I chose the path less traveled (too corny?).  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

            The year before attending university, I took the year off to travel.  I knew that the first thing financial aid was going to look at was how much money I made the year before.  So, I didn’t make any money that year.  And when they decided how much money I ‘needed’, they saw that I didn’t have any.  It’s not cheating the system; it’s knowing the rules.  The following year I used the money that financial aid gave me to spend a semester studying in Rome, where I met a girl.  And when that girl had to go back to Australia to finish her degree and me back to the U.S. for mine, I came up with another plan.

            It wasn’t so much of a plan as the answer to a seemingly impossible question: how do I continue to see this girl I’ve fallen in love while still completing my degree in Country A and her doing her own degree in Country B.  The answer came in how I interpreted the phrases “room and board”, “personal expenses”, and “transportation” on my financial aid package.  And this is how I came to be living in Australia (with said girl) while finishing my degree in America.

            There are countless reasons why you might want to travel and even more reasons you should.  For me, it was a girl.  For you, it could be that you want to get a new perspective on things, or a break from your routines, or just have that itch to cross something off your bucket list.  Whatever the reason, travel is a good thing and it’s more possible than you realize.  Call this a guide, call it advice, or just call it an entertaining story.  But here is my answer to how I did what I did.  And it’s how you can too.

Step 1: Sort out your finances

            This year, approximately 67% of undergrads in the U.S. will receive some form of financial aid.  This will most likely come in the form of scholarships, grants, and/or loans.  Most of the organizations giving out this money will have some form of rules or restrictions on how this money can be spent.  Personally, I think that choosing to spend that money on scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef over alcohol (the average college student spends just shy of $1,000/year according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania) shouldn’t be something you have to defend, but make sure you take the time to review all the fine print just in case.

            Your financial aid office is going to ask over a hundred questions before giving you a financial aid package, but the two most critical things they are looking at are assets and earnings.  The financial aid formula assumes that students should be able to spend 20% of their assets on college.  For parents, the rate is closer to 6% of assets.  Between these and what you earned before, the school will come up with an EFC (expected family contribution) score.  This is the most important number for determining what you will receive.

            I would never advocate that you lie on this questionnaire.  What I do suggest, however, is that you plan ahead with this knowledge in mind.  For me, it was taking the year off to travel.  If you’re not sure what to do for your “gap year”, I’d recommend Central America.  WWOOF is another idea.  And there are countless others.  What you do isn’t as important as what you don’t do: which is earn any taxable income.  Your goal should be to get your EFC down to $0.

Step 2: Do your homework

            Most major universities don’t allow you to take many credits outside of a classroom setting, so we are going to need to get creative.  One of my favorite professors held class only once or twice a week and then made all the tests available on-line.  I’ve had other classes where the only thing graded was a research paper.  You know what both of these have in common?  You can do them both from a hammock (as long as you have decent wifi).  There are tons of classes just like these.  All you have to do is find them.  This is easier than you think as most colleges have websites that have been started by previous students just to inform other students of which teachers are better, which are hotter, and most importantly to our goal, how teachers grade.  And if you can’t find a website like that, just ask other students.  Trust me, most students are exceptional at making their lives as easy as possible and will be more than happy to help out a kindred spirit.

Step 3: Get outside the box

            You’re not always going to be able to find professors that don’t require you to actually be in class.  We want to use every resource available.  This is most likely going to come in the form of on-line classes and independent study projects.  Even though there is going to be a limit to how many credits you can take like this, there are always exceptions to every rule.  In the last semester of my degree I couldn’t find any classes like the ones I mentioned earlier and I was at the limit for “off-campus” credits.  So I went to the program director and came up with the most convincing story of why I needed to do an independent study project. After a serious Oscar-worthy performance, he agreed.  Just remember, you’re the one paying for this degree, and, as they say, the customer is always right.

Step 4: Study abroad

            Just because I said this isn't your typical study abroad article, doesn't mean I don't advocate studying abroad.  This is actually the easiest way to travel while you study.  For my study abroad trip, I spent three months in Rome.  They set me up with an apartment near the city center, planned group excursions,  and the cost of my flight was included in my financial aid.  And while it's not my favorite form of traveling, I still had an amazing time and I learned quite a bit.  On top of that, if you study abroad in spring, you'd have the entire summer to travel after that with the most expensive part of traveling (the plane ticket) already paid for.

Step 5: Get backup

            Remember that program director that agreed to my independent study project?  Well, there was one catch: I had to come by his office and pick up the edited copies after he graded them.  There is a slight possibility that he was starting to catch on to my plan.  This is where it's important to be willing to ask for help.  For me, it meant getting one of my best friends to come to my rescue.  He agreed to swing by my professor's office each week when he was away and pick up my assignments from his box as though I stopped by myself.  This way my professor felt like I was still coming by the campus every now and again.  And I got to add more stamps to my passport. 

            Next fall I will start on my master's degree in school counseling.  And one of the things I will always advocate to my students is to travel.  I'll probably even tell them this story. 

             Mark Twain said, "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."