One night, Charles Hamer ’20 came to my room, and I could see so much happiness in him. “This feels so surreal, Ariel,” he told me. He explained to me that he had just received his passport for the first time in his life. Hamer has never travelled outside of the United States before. But this January, he will be going on a St. Olaf study abroad program to Bangkok, Thailand.
St. Olaf College has ranked No. 1 in study abroad programs for nine consecutive years, according to Open Doors. For the 2017-2018 academic year, the college offers 123 study abroad and off-campus programs in nearly 50 countries, and students can study nearly anywhere in the world, with literally any field of study. While the study abroad and off-campus programs “aims to foster students’ global engagement” and serves as an extension to liberal art learning, the cost can be a burden. The programs usually require students to pay above the St. Olaf normal tuition, which on average ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000.
Starting this year there’s one study abroad program where students don’t have to pay anything: Global Semester. It’s a prestigious and long-standing St. Olaf program that allows students to study in eight to ten countries over the course of one semester. Thanks to a generous donor, the program has no additional cost above a normal semester on campus. In the past, the program was known to be expensive and only some students could afford to go. So in theory, the donation to Global Semester is supposed to help students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to go on Global, especially students from lower-income families.
Why is it important to give students from lower-income backgrounds an opportunity to see the world? One of the issues that cripple a lot of children in impoverished communities is the inability to see past their current situation. This inability is rooted in the fact that these children are starved of basic necessities. How much time can you spend dreaming about college or a future career when you are trying to stay safe or figure out where your next meal is coming from? Can disadvantaged youth garner global awareness when the circumstances of their environment demand that they be present in order to make it to the next day? The answer is not a strict no. However, it is severely limited – the more you have, the easier it is to dream big.
This situation is in stark contrast to the reality that a lot of privileged youth face. From a young age, the chance that a person has traveled abroad is significantly higher if that person comes from a middle to upper class family background. Chances are, people from these backgrounds have learned about a variety of situations and people around the world. Sometimes traveling abroad is even an annual tradition for people with means to do so. If this is true, those people probably have an increased sense of global awareness and have several more opportunities compared to someone who has never had the privilege of traveling outside of their city.
When asked if free study abroad programs should prioritize low income students, we do not have a strict, conclusive answer.
However, we do believe that these privileges, or lack thereof, travel with students to college. The opportunity to study abroad could change the life of someone who has only had the opportunity to travel when it came to moving into college. For others, Global Semester could be one of the several opportunities they have to travel abroad in their lifetime. Without a doubt, low income students could benefit more from subsidized program fees than others. To be able to travel to different nations, learn different cultures and meet different people is a privilege, and it’s important that this gap is bridged between students that are able to have that experience, and students that are not able to. Free programs such as Global Semester should try to close this gap in opportunities among students.