Op-ed: Study abroad is an overlooked privilege

Rachel Mahoney, contributor 

One of the most sought-after experiences at Northeastern is studying abroad. The university has programs like N.U.in and Global Scholars that give students a unique opportunity to start their college experience in another country. However, how “unique” really is this experience?

These programs are typically only accessible to students from affluent households, so the necessity set forth by Northeastern to study abroad neglects students from a lower socioeconomic background that may not be able to afford it. So, why does the university treat study abroad like a necessity, when it is actually an inaccessible privilege many students can not afford?

Spending my first semester in Rome was life-changing and gave me the opportunity to meet new people and travel the world. Taking cheap flights, navigating a non-English speaking country and being legally able to drink were just some of the privileges I was afforded while abroad. 

All of these activities that N.U.in students were afforded cost a lot of money over the semester. While in Italy, we had limited access to dining halls, and the travel and restaurant expenses added up very quickly. I spent thousands of dollars throughout my time overseas, not to mention the fact that we were paying regular Northeastern tuition even though we were studying at a different campus that was a fraction of the cost. I hardly realized how much we were spending just to get through our day. Not everyone can afford to eat out every night or spend 10 euros for a drink. 

Still, I was able to afford these luxuries because I, and seemingly most of my peers, were from socioeconomically-privileged backgrounds that prevented us from worrying about prices. Many of us acknowledged how lucky we were to be there when discussing the costs of trips, dinners or shopping sprees, but there were some people I interacted with who did not truly understand the value of money or how lucky they were to be able to afford such an experience. Some students I interacted with rarely checked prices. They discussed going to expensive activities and treated the costs as just another day of throwing in their parents’ credit card. It was shocking to me how many people had never worked in high school and thought money was disposable. 

Attending an institution like Northeastern that puts so much emphasis on studying abroad can be a challenge if it does not fit into your financial schedule. The experience can be life-changing, but it is not a necessity. 

There are many ways to become a globally aware student without the absurd travel expenses. With a school as diverse as Northeastern in a city like Boston, it is fairly easy to ask international students about their lives back home or visit neighborhoods with lots of immigrants to learn about different cultures. Northeastern fails to recognize the many opportunities close by for students that do not have an endless supply of money and may feel isolated from their peers or like they are missing out on a necessity. It is possible to become a global citizen at Northeastern  without draining your bank account; there is so much to learn right here on campus and around Boston.

Considering how study abroad programs are typically more accessible to affluent students, and how the socioeconomic makeup of the student body leans their way, it is baffling how spending your first semester abroad becomes a social barrier upon returning to Boston. 

It can be difficult navigating life in Boston, but, at least for myself, there have not been as many barriers as N.U.in. students claim there are. Never have I felt isolated from the other students since being back, and studying abroad has helped by breaking the barriers my social anxiety put up. I have a lot of fun stories to share, but it is possible to do that without going overseas. Students are always open to meeting new people coming back from N.U.in. or Global Observers, and there are many clubs and organizations to join that can also ease that anxiety. The majority of N.U.in students I have interacted with have enjoyed a smooth transition back to campus with some great stories to share with new friends. 

Students not in these programs can often feel they are missing out on a huge part of their Northeastern experience. There is so much talk about the “global experience” and not enough about how fortunate we are to live in a city like Boston. There are so many ways to become global in our backyard. Boston is filled with history and museums that offer a surplus of knowledge about other cultures. Neighborhoods such as the Italian District in the North End offer opportunities to talk to people from other countries and try authentic food, something that was a highlight of N.U.in. 

It is so important to understand how expensive studying abroad is. Would I ever give up my experience? No, but that does not mean everyone has to do it. We are all so lucky to go to a school like Northeastern, and there is no shame in not straying far from campus. 

Rachel Mahoney is a first-year journalism and criminal justice combined major. She can be reached at [email protected].