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How to Get Your Study Abroad Paid For: These Experts Share Insider Tips

A young woman poses in a seaside town near the coast in Italy
Sharleen So, who won three scholarships and received two grants that paid for her study abroad in Florence, Italy, poses at a scenic spot in Cinque Terre, along the country's northwestern coast. Photo courtesy of Sharleen So

Studying abroad is a game changer. A life changer, even.

From the personal benefits of multiculturalism to the career benefits of having international experience on a resume, it’s hard to deny that studying abroad is a great thing to do in college, but most students don’t take advantage of the opportunity.

According to the latest data from the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), less than 9% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad.

With all of those benefits, why aren’t more students doing it?

“The No. 1 reason —  without a doubt — is finances,” said Chris Haynes, assistant director of student services at the University of South Florida’s Education Abroad Office.

At USF, about 60 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid. And every semester, Haynes advises hundreds of those students. Time and time again, he hears a familiar refrain: “I’d love to study abroad, but I can’t afford it.”

But studying abroad is becoming much more affordable, specifically for first-generation, low-income or minority college students, according to USF’s Office of National Scholarships (ONS).

National Scholarship Adviser Lauren Roberts said those types of students are prime candidates for study-abroad scholarships.

The push to send underrepresented students abroad isn’t unique to USF. Many other campuses are pushing for low-income students to go overseas as well, Roberts said.

Sharleen So, a senior accounting student at USF, receives a Pell grant, a need-based subsidy from the federal government, to help cover her tuition. Her demonstrated financial need helped her score an additional $7,500 to study abroad in Florence, Italy, over the summer.

“I was very proactive instead of waiting for something to come my way,” So said.

She estimates that she applied for about 20 scholarships. In the end, she won three scholarships and received two grants. They paid for her entire trip, including meals.

“I used to tell myself that I couldn’t study abroad,” So said. “But we shouldn’t put limits to what we can do.”

“There’s funding everywhere,” Haynes said. “You just have to dig sometimes.”

And we did a lot of the digging for you. Below are scholarships as well as some insider tips to study abroad for cheap ― or free.

Tips to Keep Your Study-Abroad Costs Down

Generally, it’s best to study abroad early in your college career. Start making a game plan now to allow yourself  the proper time to consider your options and budget for your study-abroad experience. If your university has an office dedicated to studying abroad, start there. If your campus doesn’t have one, ask your career or academic advisers. Give yourself about a year to look through the programs and funding options with your advisers.

That way ”you’ll know the schedule and know when you’ll need to be working on [the applications] throughout the school year,” Roberts said.

A lot of scholarship deadlines can be far in advance, but if you’re itching to study abroad now, not to worry. There are still some creative ways to fund your trip, Roberts said.

Choose the Right Program

Deciding to study abroad is the first step of many. There are myriad programs to choose from. If you can think of it, it probably exists. (Wine tasting in Italy? Yep. Solar engineering in the Philippines? You got it.) Narrow down your choices by considering what is best for your future career. What languages might you need? What program lines up with your degree or dream job?

Pro tip: Underrepresented locations are ripe for additional funding opportunities. Learning Korean with a host family in Seoul is going to look a lot more desirable to someone evaluating a scholarship application than taking business classes in London. Also, Asia is a lot more affordable than Western Europe in general.

Consider the Length of Your Stay

It may come as a surprise, but staying longer overseas may be a better option for several reasons.

For faraway locations, the plane ticket might be the bulk of the cost. So if you’re flying to Australia, you may want a longer program. While they may have a bigger price tag, Haynes said, longer programs give you “more bang for your buck.”

(Also, consider the jet lag. You’re going to want to actually remember your trip.)

In terms of scholarships, Roberts said that many require a minimum of three weeks, with a strong preference for semester and yearlong studies.

So that spring break “cultural” cruise to the Bahamas might sound great on paper, but it could end up costing you more in the long run.

Talk With Your Financial Aid Office

If you are one of the majority of students attending college, you probably receive some sort of financial aid already. And there’s good news if you want to study abroad.

“Most state institutions allow financial aid to transfer over to your study-abroad experience,” Haynes said. “Everyone’s financial-aid package is different. That’s a huge factor in budgeting.”

Not only can existing financial aid cover part of your trip, some institutions like USF offer additional funds to help students study abroad. Sharleen So got two grants from her financial aid office, which helped pay for her trip to Italy. The best part? No scholarship essays. They’re grants, which are basically free money.

The type of academic credit you receive for your study-abroad experience will factor into the equation as well, so it’s always good to run it by the financial aid office once you have found a program.

Get Creative With Funding

Besides the more common funding methods, like working during the summer to save up money, applying for a bunch of scholarships or selling a kidney, there are a lot of other ways to get your study-abroad program paid for.

“It can be as boring as starting a GoFundMe account or as random as getting sponsorships from large companies like Monster Energy,” Haynes said. “You never know what students are going to do to pay for their trip.”

Rotary Clubs are another great resource that Haynes recommends.

“They are advocates of international travel and globalization,” Haynes said.One of our students got a $1,500 check from his local Rotary Club.

While that’s not going to pay for the whole trip, it could cover round-trip airfare or provide a hefty food fund. Every little bit helps.

National Scholarships Can Fund Your Study Abroad Trip

For the more traditional folk, national scholarships are a great way to get most (if not all) of your study-abroad expenses covered. Some scholarships may have niche requirements. But, hey, the more niche the better. It increases your odds of getting the payout.

Before applying for these big-ticket scholarships, check in with the appropriate adviser. Whether it’s the financial aid office, the career center or an office of national scholarships, there should be people who are in charge of finding you money to study abroad. They can also help you during the application process.

Nonetheless, Sharleen So advises students to work hard to make their own study-abroad goals happen.

“The only thing stopping yourself,” she said, “is yourself.”

Boren Scholarship

First up is Boren, not because it necessarily merits going first but because it starts with the letter B. This scholarship has some of those aforementioned “niche requirements,” but if you fit the bill, the payout is massive.

The Boren Scholarship awards students (both undergraduate and graduate) with up to $20,000 to study a critical language. OK, on second thought, maybe it does merit going first.

The funds can be applied to many study-abroad programs as long as they offer study in a language from a region deemed critical to U.S. national security interests. Languages like Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Korean are popular examples. View the Boren website for a comprehensive list of critical languages.

With the goal of becoming fluent in mind, programs “for two or more semesters are strongly encouraged. Preference will be given to undergraduate applicants proposing at least 6 months overseas,” the Boren Scholarship website says.

Note: Some may consider this a catch. Others may say it’s a blessing. In either case, after you graduate, you must dedicate one year to working in national security.

“They very broadly define national security,” Roberts said. “And it is noncompetitive hiring,” which means you won’t have to compete with the general public for a position in the federal government.

Payout: Up to $20,000.

Application Dates: Deadline February 7, 2019.

Materials Needed: Two essays and a letter of recommendation.

Scholarship Website: BorenAwards.org.

Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program

As with the Boren, this scholarship is focused on “critical language” learning. However, the CLS language list is much smaller.

This “scholarship” is actually a fully funded study-abroad program run by the U.S. Department of State, so the funds can’t be applied to other programs. Applicants must be dedicated to learning one of these 15 languages and must demonstrate how learning the language will affect their career goals.

“There are several languages where you don’t have to have past experience,” Roberts said. “But you need to show why it’s important to use in your future.”

Also similar to the Boren, the CLS program will offer noncompetitive hiring assistance with a position in the federal government after graduation, meaning applicants who complete CLS won’t have to compete with the general public for a federal government job. But for this program, the federal government position is not mandatory.

Payout: Fully funded study abroad program.

Application Dates: Late November deadline.

Additional Materials: One statement of purpose essay and four short-answer essays, letters of recommendation and unofficial transcripts.

Scholarship Website: CLScholarship.org.

Freeman Awards for Study in Asia (Freeman-ASIA)

As its name implies, this need-based scholarship will fund study-abroad experiences in Asia, specifically East or Southeast Asia.

The Freeman Institute provides undergraduate students with a 2.8 GPA or higher up to $7,000 to study abroad. Applicants must plan to study abroad for a minimum of eight weeks.

The payout scales with length of the chosen study-abroad program:

  • Summer programs: Up to $3,000.
  • Semester programs: Up to $5,000.
  • Academic year programs: Up to $7,000.

Applicants must present verifiable evidence of need for financial assistance, and funds from this program can go toward any costs associated with the trip, not just tuition.

Payout: Up to $7,000.

Application Period: Opens January 2019.

Additional Materials: Two essays and official transcripts.

Scholarship Website: IIE.org/Freeman-Asia.

Fulbright U.S. Student Program

After World War II, Sen. J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, proposed a bill to fund international education by selling leftover military supplies. President Harry S. Truman signed it into law the following year. Today, it’s the largest exchange program in the U.S, according to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

The program is a fully funded experience that sends students to more than 140 countries. It has many components but can be broken down into three main categories: researching, teaching English and studying for a master’s degree.

Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree by the time the Fulbright program starts, Roberts said. So it’s best to apply during your junior or senior year. Recent graduates and alumni are welcome to apply as well.

There’s an opportunity for current students, too: The Fulbright U.K. Summer Institute Though it shares the name, this program has a separate application with annual deadlines in November. It’s geared toward first- and second-year students who want to study in the U.K. during the summer. It’s also a fully funded, all-inclusive program for students with a 3.7 GPA or higher.

“[The Fulbright U.K. program] is a very cool and interesting way to start off your college career,” Roberts said.

Similar to the CLS, the Fulbright program can’t be applied to other study-abroad trips.

Payout: Fully funded, plus living stipends.

Application Dates:  Opens April 2019

Additional Materials: One essay, three letters of recommendation and official transcripts.

Scholarship Website: us.FulbrightOnline.org or Fulbright.org.uk/

Gilman International Scholarship

Last but not least is the Gilman scholarship. This scholarship is specifically in place to help low-income students go abroad. It’s for students who already receive the Pell Grant and have demonstrated financial need.

It also happens to be the most awarded study-abroad scholarship through USF’s Office of National Scholarships.

“Last summer we had about 100 people apply [at USF], and about 30 people received it,” Roberts said. “So the chances of receiving it are just a lot higher than other scholarships.”

Even better? The requirements are pretty lax. There are no GPA requirements, and the study-abroad program has to be only three weeks long. Up to $3,000 of additional funds are awarded to programs with a critical-language component.

Because of the financial-need requirement, you will have to apply through the appropriate adviser on campus.

Payout: Up to $8,000 (with language component).

Application Dates: March 6, 2018 (long-term programs).

Additional Materials: Up to three essays, unofficial transcripts, a financial aid form and a letter of recommendation.

Scholarship Website: GilmanScholarship.org.

Corrections and clarifications, Oct. 11, 2018:

The Fulbright U.K. Summer Institute is separate from the Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship program, with separate deadlines and other requirements. The original article was unclear on this point.

The Boren Scholarship does not help students get jobs. The original article misstated the nature of the assistance it provides.

The Gilman Scholarship does not have a GPA requirement. The original article didn’t make this clear.

Adam Hardy is a reporter and editorial assistant at The Penny Hoarder. He studied abroad as a low-income, first generation college student. Then he advised others to do the same at the Education Abroad office at the University of South Florida. After a year, he quit his job to move to South Korea where he taught grade-schoolers and North Korean refugees. Read his full bio, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.

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