By Molly Langdon
College students frequently search for hands-on experience to build upon their classroom foundations, especially in this competitive job market. Students that face financial difficulties, however, can struggle when given an opportunity to gain experience because it is challenging to afford or justify. From unpaid internships to study abroad trips, it is clear that experiential learning comes at a cost.
Some benefits of studying abroad, according to the Journal of International Education Research, include “increased multicultural awareness, greater foreign language proficiency, better professional and personal development, and better academic performance.” The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that “internship experience is often the deciding factor when employers are evaluating two otherwise equivalent candidates.” These experiences are becoming a necessity, and their accessibility can vary between students of different backgrounds.
Wanting to stand out to employers almost requires that students find experience outside of the classroom to speak to in interviews and display on their resume. As of August 2023, Education Data reported $1.766 trillion in student loan debt in the United States.
Students struggling to afford college tuition may not be able to afford experiential learning experiences without scholarships or compensation, and unpaid internships and expensive study abroad programs can create further unease as students think about meeting future employment qualifications.
Experiential learning encompasses “something that is going to contribute to your career long-term outside of the classroom,” according to Kyle Chiu, student employment manager at the University of Georgia, who works with students to secure internships while in school and help employers market their job opportunities.
“Companies that can afford it are getting on board with the paid internships,” Chiu said.
2023 NACE research suggests that many smaller businesses or nonprofit organizations tend to offer unpaid internships, and Chiu attributes this to either an inability to pay each worker or not receiving financial grant funding.
“Obviously, in a perfect world we’d have all of them be paid,” Chiu said. He added that a lot of businesses still want to see what type of talent they can get unpaid since unpaid internships have been around for a long time, and will probably be around forever.
“Not compensating interns communicates to them and their organizational colleagues that their contributions are somehow less valuable than the work of paid interns,” according to NACE, and contributes to a disparity in student experiential learning by favoring those who can afford to work without compensation.
Chiu notes that the Office of Experiential Learning at UGA offers some support for these unpaid experiences through scholarships that help pay for a portion of living costs. The office also offers a Suit Up Scholarship, which aids students needing or seeking business professional clothing by giving them a budget for it.
The Journal of International Education Research states that a notable objective for study abroad students is “learning and gaining proficiency in a foreign language,” usually picking a place that can best enable their language improvement and cultural understanding.
Mary Harrison, fourth-year UGA student, chose to study abroad in Valencia, Spain to improve her Spanish skills and immerse herself in Spanish culture. Harrison always knew she wanted to study abroad while in undergraduate and applied to several UGA study abroad scholarships after finding the program that fit her goals.
“There were definitely some financial stress stressors at one point, but I got all the scholarships,” she said. Harrison used her in-state Zell Miller Scholarship, and UGA’s experiential learning and Office of Global Engagement general scholarships to cover the program cost and other fees such as passport and visa expenses.
Receiving the UGA Morehead Honors International Scholars program scholarship helped Harrison “travel to other places and fully experience a culture and food,” she said.
Jordan Holmes, global education advisor at UGA, helps students find scholarships and programs in their budget. UGA students can schedule study abroad advising appointments and tell advisors of their interests or concerns regarding going abroad.
Holmes said she advises students on how they can use their existing tuition scholarships for study abroad and shares information regarding UGA and external scholarship funds. The Office of Global Engagement hosts scholarship info sessions during the school year, providing details on specific scholarship application requirements.
An external, non-UGA, scholarship for study abroad offered that is need-based is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, a national fund for students who are Pell Grant-eligible. Holmes said there are many others offered based on both need and merit listed on the Office of Global Engagement website’s scholarship search.
Harrison learned how individual financial situations differed while traveling abroad in groups with other students. Her roommate, a business major at UGA, used a spreadsheet for budgeting while on the program, which Harrison said taught her more about how to manage money and plan.
“Just knowing how to handle money and what’s worth spending stuff on,” Harrison said contributed to her experience and her better understanding of finances.
Harrison’s study abroad program group shared everyone’s financial burdens by “creating a balance” and picking “a place that works for everyone,” she said.
“I feel like it also helped me understand a little bit because most people just don’t really talk about how much money they have, or like, what they’re able to afford and stuff,” Harrison said about her return to America after being abroad in Valencia, Spain.
Students and their families’ financial constraints, according to Journal of International Education Research, are a major factor of the popularity of short-term programs, which are less expensive than longer programs. Holmes added that all UGA programs include a cost breakdown in the program brochure, showing tuition and program fees as well as airfare, passport, personal spending costs and other incidentals.
Navigating scholarships and compensation for opportunities that advance a student’s skills and marketability remains a challenge, but understanding the resources available can help students make decisions and find valuable and affordable experience.
Molly Langdon is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.