Diversity Abroad: The First in My Family to Study Abroad – Perspectives from Three First-Generation College Students

By Abby Miller, ISA Senior Regional Director

“First-generation college student” is a term we hear more and more often in the international education community. According to the Federal Trio Programs, a first-generation college student is defined as an individual whose parents (adoptive, birth, or custodial) have not completed a 4-year baccalaureate degree (DoED, 2016). For most students who fall under this category, it’s a box that they’ve checked on college applications, scholarship applications, FAFSA, etc. For some, it’s a category that they’ve learned to embrace and wear proudly.

The number of first-generation college students grows every year; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 34% of undergraduates in the US were the first in their families to go to college during the 2011-2012 academic year (PNPI, 2016). Despite the many barriers that have been identified for first-generation college students, these students are known to be resilient and driven. For first-generation college students, they have often already overcome many of the barriers that their classmates are experiencing when they choose to study abroad.

Dr. Margery Ganz of Spelman College developed four key barriers that most students encounter when attempting to study abroad:

  • Family
  • Finances
  • Fear
  • Faculty (or Academics)

In this post, you will meet three Arizona State University students who have two things in common: they are the first in their family to go to college, AND they are the first in their family to study abroad. They have certainly encountered and overcome some of these barriers before choosing to study abroad. Read along to learn about how their first-generation student status and studying abroad has impacted their lives!


Luis Sierra is a senior at Arizona State University who is majoring in Psychology. He studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain during the fall semester of 2017.

Stephanie Rendon is a senior at Arizona State University who is majoring in Family & Human Development and Political Science. She studied abroad Rome, Italy during the fall semester of 2016.

Dajhia Burris is a senior at Arizona State University majoring in Public Health. She studied abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica during the fall semester of 2016.


How did you first learn about study abroad?

Luis: I first learned about studying abroad my freshman year when I applied through an ISA and ASU partnership scholarship for first generation students and earned it. From that moment, it motivated me to start saving money for my trip and plan early to avoid last minute stress.

Dajhia: I first became interested in studying abroad during college when I was still in high school. I had never been out of the United States and thought it would be interesting to travel and experience another culture. I forgot about the idea until I received an email from ASU that highlighted a scholarship opportunity for first generation college students.


When and how did you learn about the term first-generation college student and what does it mean to you?

Stephanie: I learned I was first generation in high school. I knew that I was at a disadvantage of sorts when compared to my classmates, but did not realize what that actually meant until I started applying for college and scholarships. Whenever something came up, my friends could ask their parents to help them out or even do certain things for them. For me that wasn’t an option; I had to really do it all on my own. Luckily, I had an amazing and helpful counselor.

To me, being first generation means that I am breaking the barrier and setting an example for my siblings and others with a similar background.

Dajhia: I had never heard the term “first generation college student” until I began college. I was always aware that my parents had never gone to school. I always had to check that box on school applications, but did not realize how much of an accomplishment it was that I was able to go to a university.

Now that I am familiar with the term and the weight it carries behind it, I feel extremely proud. To me the term represents the hardships my parents faced and everything they sacrificed for me to do well and to get ahead in life.


What was the most impactful moment from your study abroad experience?

Stephanie: The most impactful (moment) for me was my first time grocery shopping. I didn’t think I would have cultural shock because I figured I was well exposed to different cultures (and I was bilingual), but man was I wrong. I remember being amazed at first, walking through the store, picking things up and recognizing that there would be different packaging and location. The eggs and milk were not refrigerated. Milk was in a box. I remember walking over to the coffee and being completely clueless. I picked something up, and it was a brick. A coffee brick. I lost it.

In that moment, I felt that I had made a mistake in studying abroad and all I wanted to do was be back home back with my family. I looked down the aisles and it was completely empty. I had never felt so alone. I started texting my friends and family, but due to the time difference, everyone was asleep. The only person awake was my dad. I began texting him and all he said was “Hi, I love you, goodnight”.

I remembered telling myself to hurry up so I could go home and cry. Once I got home, I spoke to my roommates as they saw I was upset (I lived with five other girls in our own apartment). It turns out they were having a similar experience and that’s when I finally managed to calm down.

I realized that I wasn’t alone and that this was something everyone went through. I decided to really invest myself into the culture and to get to know everyone living with me, in my program, and in my classes. That was the best decision I had ever made.

 Dajhia: The most impactful moment of my time abroad was during one of the first few weeks of my time in Costa Rica and I was able to have an entire conversation with my host parents. When I first arrived in Costa Rica, I spoke no Spanish and my host parents spoke no English. We were never able to have a full conversation and therefore were unable to create a stronger bond because we could not get over the language barrier. By the end of my time there I had learned enough Spanish to be able to understand most aspects of conversation and come up with decent responses. This was an extremely proud moment for me because not only had I majorly improved my language skills (a significant personal goal), but I was able to talk freely with my host parents, people who had taken care of me for months and had become family.


Did your decision to study abroad impact your family? How?

Stephanie: It definitely did. Being the oldest, my parents are overprotective. When I first applied to study abroad, I don’t think my parents thought I would go through with it. Literally a week before I was supposed to depart, I had finally begun packing, and my parents freaked out. They told me this was a lot of money, I was wasting my time, I was abandoning the family, and they demanded I end everything. I was so devastated; in Hispanic culture, when your parents say something needs to be done and you don’t do it, you are undermining their authority. It’s the biggest offense anyone could ever do. I started looking into canceling my program and everything and realized that I needed to set my foot down. This was something I really wanted to do; of course I was scared, but so were my parents. This was when I realized I had failed to really integrate and involve my parents in my process of preparation. If I could go back and change anything it would be to involve them more and engage in conversations with them even more than I had been doing.

Dajhia: My decision to study abroad affected my family on an emotional level. I was already the first person to attend college, and now I was the first to not only travel outside of the United States, but to live outside of the United States as well. My parents felt great excitement for me, but also a lot of fear. Fears of the unknown, along with the fact that they had no advice to give because they had never had these experiences themselves. Regardless of their fear, my family has always been extremely proud and supportive of my endeavors and my interests in other countries and cultures.


What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a first-generation student who’s considering studying abroad?

Stephanie: It’s going to sound cliché, but really follow your dreams. Your parents will always be mad for one thing or another, but it’s honestly the only way they know how to cope. If studying abroad is something you really want to do, then set your foot down and tell them. Trust me, I think out of all my accomplishments, my parents love talking about me studying abroad the most. Imagine if I would have stayed home; I would have missed out on such an adventure!

Dajhia: I would tell a first-generation college student to take every opportunity they can and that they will never regret studying abroad. The difficulties that you face will be nothing compared to everything you gain from the experience. I think that it is easy to become ethnocentric and unaware of the world around you when you grow up in the United States. The only real way to understand other cultures and become accepting of people who are different from us is to immerse yourself and try to see the world from that different perspective. Studying abroad was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I came home with an open mind, an open heart, and a sense of clarity about the world around me.


How has your study abroad experience impacted your career path?

Luis: My experience studying abroad has impacted my career path in such a positive way. I traveled to 10 different countries, and one must not be shy to ask for help and try your best to communicate. Being back home now, I became more confident in myself to communicate with others. Not only that, I gained cultural experience and became aware of the different things that happen at different countries and their lifestyles. I became more culturally competent and became more aware of different human interactions. Now that I am back, I am telling all my other friends to consider studying abroad because it is going to help you grow as an individual and increase your knowledge of different parts of the world.

Stephanie: My study abroad experience definitely impacted my career path. Going into my program, I was pre-med and was taking my study abroad semester as a “break” from all my rigorous and time-consuming course load that was associated with being pre-med. Stepping away from it and taking classes in international relations made me realize that I was even more passionate in international affairs, especially Human Rights and didn’t want to be a doctor. When I came back I changed my degree from Health Science Pre-professional to Family & Human Development and added Political Science. I couldn’t be happier. I loved learning more about how governments and overall how the world works together in order to protect the most vulnerable populations. I recently got accepted into Teach for America and will now be a first and second grade co-teacher. If it wasn’t for my study abroad experience, I would have never applied to TFA or had any desire to teach. Through my study abroad experience I grew as an individual and learned so much about myself, and that’s something that I would have never gotten had I not studied abroad.


If you’re interested in studying abroad, ISA can help you get started.

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