Think you can’t afford to study abroad? Think again

Cal Poly students are increasingly opting to study abroad, according to an annual statistical survey of U.S. campuses.

I had a few ground rules coming to Cal Poly as a freshman: graduate in four years, stay focused, do well in school and avoid debt. In my mind, these rules meant I could never study abroad. I thought it would delay graduation. I thought that it would put me in debt. I told myself that studying abroad was a frivolous endeavor only rich students could afford.

I was wrong.

Cal Poly sent 1,121 students abroad during the 2016-2017 school year. The campus ranked third among U.S. masters universities offering study abroad opportunities, according to a 2016-2017 academic year study by Open Doors. This was Cal Poly’s highest showing ever, according to senior international officer and director of the university’s International Center Cari Vanderkar.

That number climbed to 1,468 students the following year, according to the Cal Poly International Center. Approximately one in four Cal Poly students now study abroad.

I am one in four. I studied in Turin, Italy for over half of my junior year and was fully-funded through a scholarship. I had recently changed majors, but I was still on-track to graduate in four years.

Agricultural science senior Izzy Perello serves on a team of student ambassadors for the International Center, the first contact for students who want to study abroad.

Perello describes her job as a “WOW leader for study abroad.” She informs prospective travelers about the various programs that Cal Poly offers and gives them additional resources to help plan their trip.

“The biggest misconception to me is that it is an elitist thing — like you have to be rich to go,” Perello said. “I genuinely think that anyone can study abroad.”

I met Perello through a mutual friend during freshman year at Cal Poly. We quickly discovered that we were both locals of San Luis Obispo.

Like her, I chose Cal Poly mainly due to financial reasons. My brother and I both lived in our childhood home for the majority of college to save money. My family has faced many financial challenges, including running a small, family-owned business and my father surviving colon cancer twice.

Studying abroad always seemed out of the question.

You might feel the same way. The idea of paying for a travel program discourages many students from applying. It almost stopped me, but I am thankful it did not. Associate director of study abroad, Monica Schechter, encouraged me to apply for the scholarship that funded my entire semester overseas.

Schechter said her job at the international center includes, “trying to break down some of the barriers that the students perceive — [that] impede their ability to study abroad.”

“I just kind of assumed that it would be this really expensive, over-the-top thing” architecture senior Kathryn Stevens said.

Architecture students at Cal Poly are known for studying abroad during their fourth year. It is not mandatory, but heavily encouraged by faculty and staff.

In reality, living in another country can be cheaper than living in San Luis Obispo.

“My rent here, right now, is six hundred a month for a double [room]—and in Florence it was three hundred and I had a single,” Stevens said.

Cal Poly has experienced a 46 percent increase in study abroad students in the last five years, according to Vanderkar.

“The faculty engagement has really been key in our growing success, and I think that the overarching higher administration buy-in and support for what we do has meant that we’ve been able to build out staffing and we’ve had more resources,” Vanderkar said.

Faculty and individual departments are encouraged to work alongside the International Center. These partnerships improve accessibility for students looking to study abroad. Students can directly take Cal Poly courses by choosing a Cal Poly Global Program. Professors from Cal Poly travel with their students and the coursework directly transfers as if they are still in San Luis Obispo.

Students pay their typical Cal Poly tuition when enrolled in a Cal Poly Global program. Vanderkar said that the Cal Poly Global Programs have doubled in size. The International Center accepts new proposals from faculty for additional global programs twice a year.

These programs have grown in popularity due to their convenience. The ease of aligning classes and maintaining steady tuition rates creates an accessible, affordable opportunity to study abroad. There are five other programs available through Cal Poly and many resources to assist students in planning their overseas travel.

“All of it is just about getting the word out and making it known that no matter what your major, we can look into what options would be workable for the curriculum—it’s really exciting,” Vanderkar said.

I let my “ground rules” give me a false sense of being grounded. Sitting above the clouds on a plane to Turin, I had a realization: it was exciting to be wrong.

Taylor Barnett, McKenna Roberson and Lauren McElroy contributed to this story. Photos courtesy of Cal Poly Study Abroad and Leanna Newby.

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