First-generation, Low-income Students: How to Study Abroad and Away

By Elisabet Garcia 


While we all come from diverse cultural backgrounds, first-generation, low-income students share a common thread. We have risen from the margins of identity markers that would write us off as another statistic. Growing up as a multicultural Latina from a low-income background plagued with violence, I never considered myself worthy of higher education, let alone international education. Yet, here I am, prepared to graduate after five years of incredible transformation and growth, with two of those years spent living and studying in Latin American countries. I would like to congratulate us all on our journeys, regardless of what they have been and where they will take us.

Have you ever considered how amazing we are for attending one of the top universities in the U.S., one that is recognized globally? Wherever we go, people will consider us an esteemed academic. Understand, we likely feel imposter syndrome, as if we do not belong in the university due to our socio-economic backgrounds, but please do not let that deter us from striving for global learning opportunities.

So, how has this low-income girl from east of L.A. who experienced imposter syndrome and an identity crisis while at UC Santa Cruz been able to acquire esteemed learning opportunities around the world? However you identify and whatever your background is, I will share information about how you can participate in global learning programs, either in the U.S. or abroad.

Here’s a tip to ease us into this topic – did you know that most study abroad programs offered by the UC are non-competitive? This means that there is more than enough room for everyone to participate. There are hundreds of programs to choose from and you can learn more about program types on the UCSC Study Abroad website. You will be selected for a program as long as you meet eligibility requirements and your application is submitted completely, correctly, and on time. I hope this gives you peace of mind while we begin exploring how to make these dreams of intercultural learning a reality. Don’t stress out about it – just breathe, and know that you can make it happen.

Study Away Doesn’t Have to be International: A Quick Note About Domestic Programs in the U.S.

First, I would like to address concerns for folks who might not be able to study internationally due to not just irregularity of migratory status, but also other factors that might have legal implications or might pose personal issues. Domestic Programs are programs in the U.S. and a great option for people who just might not want to travel internationally due to access to health care, family circumstances, or personal preferences. Whatever the reason, please know that there are many options to study within the U.S and its territories. Have you considered doing an internship in New York City, studying in Hawaii, or being a domestic exchange student in New Hampshire or New Mexico? These are just a few of the many, many different Study Away programs in the U.S. that you can consider. Also, don’t forget about UCDC and the UC Sacramento program.

If you are an AB-540 or undocumented student, please know that since Advanced Parole has been rescinded, students with irregular migratory status or DACAmented students are not recommended to travel internationally because there is a high risk that you will not be allowed re-entry into the U.S.

Please know that you never have to disclose your status to anyone at any time, but that you do have on-campus support. You can always feel free to contact a Study Abroad advisor to discuss domestic programs and scholarship opportunities. You can also reach out to Undocumented Student Services for other resources such as legal support and advice before traveling.

Please visit “Undocumented, DACAmented, and AB 540 Students” on the Identities While Abroad and Away webpage of the UCSC Study Abroad Website for more information.

Academic Planning

If you want to study abroad or study away in the U.S., planning ahead is key. I understand that we all have busy schedules, especially if we have to work to support ourselves financially. However, simply freeing up an hour of our time now to map out academic plans can save time and stress later. When making this academic plan, map out all the courses needed in order to graduate in a respective major(s) (and minor(s), along with meeting GE requirements.

The first step in creating an academic plan is to consider what you want to major in. If you have already declared a major, you are already one step ahead of the game. Your major(s)/minor(s) should have a list on their department webpage of all the lower and upper-division courses needed in order to fulfill the requirements. Using this list, you can create a general academic plan to follow and check off what you have already fulfilled. After you have listed out the coursework for your major(s)/minor(s), you should also do this for GE requirements.

If you need help making your academic plan, you should visit your major/minor department(s) during drop-in hours and ask for assistance – peer advisors should be able to assist you as well. When you meet with the advisors or peer advisors, you should let them know that you want to study away and you can discuss where you can best fit a Study Away term into your graduation plan.

You can Study Away on your last term as an undergraduate and not have to return to UCSC, however in order to participate in a Study Away program, you must still be considered a student. You cannot graduate and then participate in a Study Away program. When you are creating your academic plan, you should take a look at what coursework or graduation requirements you can fulfill while on a Study Away program.

In these Study Away programs, it is possible to earn credit towards your major, minor, GE, or elective requirements, though it depends on the program’s course offerings and the rules set by your academic department. In most cases, the major/minor requirements that can be fulfilled under these programs are upper-division electives. Some major/minor departments might also have a maximum number of courses or credits that you can apply toward meeting these requirements. For example, in the Anthropology major at UCSC, a student can only apply 10 credits from a Study Away program towards their major requirements. This is the equivalent of two upper-division electives for the major. This is generally true for most major/minor departments, but this is a conversation that should be had with the particular advising department. Check with your major/minor department about how much credit can be applied to meet upper-division requirements. In terms of fulfilling GEs abroad, you should speak to your college advisor about which ones are recommended to fulfill abroad and which ones aren’t. For example, you wouldn’t want to try and study statistics in German or Spanish, right? You can use the UCSC Campus Credit Abroad Database to browse the coursework that has already been pre-approved to fulfill GE credit while on Study Away programs.

There is an array of different Study Away program types for which to apply: Faculty-Led Programs, Global Exchanges, Domestic Exchanges, UCEAP, Other UC Study Away Programs, and Independent Programs. To find out which courses might be offered under the program, you should check the program webpage. For example, the Faculty-Led program in Italy has the classes offered as listed on the program website under the section titled “Courses”. For UCSC Global Exchanges, such as at the Technical University of Denmark, you would have to visit the host university’s web page and browse the coursework offered for international students. For Domestic Exchanges, you would check the respective university’s course catalog. Independent Programs might have the coursework already packaged with classes pre-selected for you, or you might have to take a look at the respective host institution’s course catalog.

For UCEAP, please visit their website to view courses for these programs. If the UCEAP program does not already have courses pre-selected for you, this means you will be picking out your own classes. To get a better idea of what coursework might be offered, you should read the description titled Academics on the particular program page, then head to the MyEAP Course Catalog to browse coursework that has been offered previously. Please do know that this catalog lists coursework that was offered in the past and for which students received credit toward major/minor requirements. While this coursework is not guaranteed to be offered in the future, it is listed for your reference. In most cases, you will choose your coursework once you have already arrived at your program’s host institution and you may find some of the coursework listed on the MyEAP Course Catalog available.


So many of us might have concerns about the cost of studying away, however, these programs might cost less and have an overall greater value than studying at UCSC for the same amount of time. Santa Cruz, California is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Many times, a Study Away program is a more economical option. First, you do not pay double tuition when you study away; that would be a nightmare. You only pay the tuition and associated fees of the program. Second, your financial aid package goes with you and that it is adjusted to meet the cost of the program.

If you are a student with high financial need and have a financial aid package that covers most of your UCSC tuition and living costs, you could find yourself in an ideal situation to take advantage of Study Away opportunities. This is the situation I found myself in as an EOP student under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan. Since I was receiving nearly full funding to attend the UC, and I could take that funding with me to Study Away, I took the opportunity to Study Away as often as I could. I studied abroad three times for a total of about two years while being a UCSC undergraduate. This was made possible due to strategic planning and my financial aid situation.

Let’s use some of my study abroad experiences as examples to understand how financial aid works with Study Away. As an EOP student under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, I receive a financial aid package that covers about 90% of all of my costs for attending UCSC. That means the financial aid package I received for my Study Away programs also covered about 90% of the program costs. When I studied in Chile under the UCEAP Chilean Universities program for the calendar year, I received financial aid for a full academic year. This means that with financial aid alone, most of the program costs were covered, including flight costs, visa fees, housing, meals, tuition, and estimated additional expenses. The additional 10% that I was to pay out of pocket I decided to cover by taking out loans. Later, I realized that I also won many scholarships that I had applied to.

With all those financial concerns taken care of, I was able to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle with access to healthy food, gym membership, mental health support, and travel funds for the first time in my life. However, Chile is a country with high inflation that makes the cost of living very expensive, so this is something I had to keep in mind when making out of pocket expenses.

Now, let’s compare this to my study abroad in México under the Field Research Program that was for the fall semester. Since the México program is a program of a much lesser cost than studying at UCSC, the amount of money I received for financial aid actually decreased, but so did my personal contribution. The percentage of financial aid I received between the two programs remained the same, 90%. Wherever you go in the world, know that if your financial aid applies, it will be repackaged to meet the program costs.

Comparing the programs I participated in.

Year-long programs tend to be the most cost-effective and least expensive when factoring in overall costs and financial aid coverage. The next most cost-effective programs would be spring semester programs, for which you would receive two quarters of financial aid, followed by fall semester programs, for which you would receive one semester of financial aid. For summer programs, financial aid might be limited to only loans or financial aid that has rolled over from the academic year. Lastly, another option to consider might be Independent Programs under which financial aid funding is not available, but some program costs might be lesser than the ones offered by UCEAP, for example, or they might have certain programs that offer scholarships or full-funding.

Did you know that you can request a financial aid estimate for a projection on the amount of money you will receive from financial aid for a Study Away program? UCSC is one of the only two UCs to offer this service and I highly recommend that you take the opportunity of this generous resource. Requesting an estimate can allow you to understand what your out of pocket expenses might look like. You can request an estimate by filling out the form titled EAP Estimate Requests and Visa Letter Requests Form and either email it to the financial aid advisors who specialize in financial aid packaging for Study Away or going to speak to them in person, which I highly recommend doing. You can find their emails and drop-in hours on the Affording Study Abroad section of the UCSC Study Abroad website. We all have our own unique financial aid situations and it is best to have a conversation with the Financial Aid advisors to fully understand your own.

Also, have you considered extending your enrollment for a fifth year? You should speak to your Financial Aid advisor to see if you qualify for fifth year financial aid funding. In my own personal situation, when I went in to get my study abroad financial aid estimate and inquire about taking one quarter of a fifth year in order to study abroad, I was notified that I qualified for a whole fifth year of financial aid. Based on this information, I decided to extend my study abroad for a year-long program and later come back to UCSC for two more quarters to finish up my last major and GE requirements. This meeting with my Financial Aid advisor gave me information that changed my Study Abroad experience and my life.

Al Fin y Al Cabo (In the End)

As first-generation and/or low-income students of diverse backgrounds, we may face feelings of imposter syndrome or feelings of not being deserving enough of our place here in the university, but I am here to let you know that you are here because you are more than good enough and deserve as much opportunity as anyone else.

Traditionally speaking, higher education, international education, and intercultural learning have been reserved for wealthy students. However, as students of the University of California, you have access to the funds and the resources to make this opportunity happen for you as well, regardless of socio-economic background. I strongly urge and recommend you to take advantage of these Study Away programs within the U.S. and abroad. I hope that the information I have shared has been helpful in motivating and reassuring you that Study Away is an option for you – it just takes some planning and finding out which option best fits your needs.

If you ever have any questions concerning Study Away, you are welcome to contact the UCSC Study Abroad Advisors by sending them an email or visiting their office.

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