While the number of students going abroad has doubled in the past fifteen years, they still make up less than 10% of all U.S. undergraduate college students. U.S. students are much less likely to study or intern abroad compared to their international peers. The answer, perhaps, lies in the high cost of tuition in the United States, which leaves students unable to pay for international ventures, despite the growing desire to travel among young U.S. citizens. But students shouldn’t have to worry about funding their excursions, and many are unaware of the plurality of funding options that exist for internship opportunities abroad.
“There has also been a rise in non-credit education, as U.S. students increasingly seek out short-term work, internships, volunteer opportunities and student research overseas. Not only are these excellent educational opportunities, they help provide students with international experiences and a global network” – Sergei Klebnikov in Forbes.
It might seem too good to be true, but I can tell you from experience that it’s possible. I’ve studied/volunteered/interned abroad three times, and I was able to receive partial if not full funding for each of these excursions. In 2014, with the help of a private donor, I joined a group of students spending the summer studying in Toronto, Canada. Then in 2015, I jumped on board an opportunity to study at the University of Cape Town and volunteer in South Africa. I used the experience to publish my senior thesis, and as a result was able to receive a research grant from my department at Penn State Behrend that covered almost all of my expenses.
Now I’m back in Cape Town for the summer, completing an unpaid internship with Eventerprise, a tech-startup and early stage SaaS platform that allows event hosts to transparently review event suppliers, connecting the two parties. As a Master’s of Public Administration candidate at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, I received funding from two incredible resources which allowed me to fully fund my excursion. If you’ve got the travel bug like me, but struggle with understanding how to finance your goals, I’m here to give you a few tips:
1) Start early, but more importantly, don’t wait till the last minute
It might seem impossible to focus on filing applications to go abroad when you’re in the middle of an academic semester, but it’s crucial to successfully finding funding. If you want to spend your summer abroad, I recommend you start narrowing down top contenders over the winter break so you can finish up applications for work or study by the end of February. This is because the sooner you know what you’re doing, the more time you have to search for fiscal support.
Because I signed on for my internship in early March, I had three months to apply for scholarships. When it comes to getting funding, the sooner the better. Universities or scholarship funds many times operate from a pot of money, and when that pot runs out there’s no more funding left to give. Other programs may have early deadlines. Put these two factors together, and if you wait until the month before you leave it may be impossible to find the funds to go. Nail your plans down soon, and then come up with a good argument for just why this experience will be so important for your future. Which brings me to my next point,
2) Make it part of a bigger picture – how will these skills define your (short-term) goals?
I get it, it’s hard to know exactly what you want to do as an undergraduate. When I applied for funding for my first trip to Cape Town, all I knew was that I could use the skills gained to work on my senior honors thesis. I used this rationale to secure funding from Penn State Behrend, with the understanding that the studies and work I would be completing in Cape Town would coincide with research for my thesis. I didn’t have to come up with a reason it would benefit me in twenty years time – I just had to show it had a purpose in my current academic trajectory.
Your university/donor doesn’t need a creative story about how this will directly impact your long-term plan. They’re in on the secret that millennials often don’t get taught – many of the most prestigious careers were built one step at a time. It doesn’t matter if you can’t show them your end-goal – if you can explain how the experience will get you to the next step, chances are you’ll stand a good chance of being sponsored.
3) Get help writing your applications
While half the battle is finding funding streams, the other half is convincing people you’re worthy of sponsorship. I don’t think I can stress enough how important good writing is in allowing you to coherently tell your story and make an appealing request for financial support. Writing is stressful, and most students just want to get it over with as quickly as they can. But if you put in the months of grueling edits and work with a writing tutor or another campus resource, your application will stand out. Even while I was working as a tutor and editing other student papers at Penn State Behrend, I spent months working with the Director of our Learning Resource Center on a Fulbright Application, and it paid off when I was offered the award. Though I ultimately took a different course, I have always had someone else look over my applications before I submit them.
4) Use your campus resources – they’re there for a reason
Every university, department, and faculty member has a plurality of connections and resources that can help you actualize your international dreams. At Penn State, I received support from my humanities department, our writing and research center, and multiple generous private scholarships. At Cornell, I received funding as part of my fellowship at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, as well as from a new scholarship I applied for, the Global Cornell Women’s Leadership Program. Between these two resources, I was able to fully fund my unpaid internship at Eventerprise in Cape Town this summer.
I guarantee that wherever you are, there are not only numerous scholarship opportunities, but there is someone whose job is literally to help you find out about those opportunities. If you don’t know where to find these people, either do a quick google search for study abroad, scholarship, and other resources, or simply walk into the careers center at your university and ask for more guidance. If for some reason you believe your university doesn’t have these type of resources, start looking into local community foundations and national scholarship awards. The opportunities for funding are endless if you care enough to look.
5) Show your University you’ll be a positive face
Universities use student summer excursions as recruitment material, so think about how you can market your experience as something your university can market to students. This could be something small, like explaining the cool activities you will be taking part in and hinting at photo ops, or showing how a new partnership with a company could lead to better jobs and more internships for students.
Another great way to show that what you’ll be doing will positively impact your university or sponsor is to get a clear list of tasks of what you will be accomplishing. This way, you are accountable for completing some sort of set task, and will have something to show for it when it’s all finished. This brings me to my last point,
6) Never, ever be afraid to ask
There’s no doubt about it, asking for funding can be scary. Banish “what if they say no?” out of your head and just go for it. The people who get resources are the ones who aren’t afraid to ask for them, and who can sell themselves as being worthy of financial sponsorship. Take some time to map out how your summer plans will play a part in your immediate (two to four years) academic or professional goals, to write out carefully worded applications, and to adequately explain how sponsorship will provide you with a clear path to achievement. Just because your sponsors are giving you money and not loans, doesn’t mean they don’t want to see a return on their investment. Market your summer internship or trip as you would market a new invention on Shark Tank, and I promise that you’ll find someone who if nothing else, identifies with your passion and extends a branch to your cause.
If you need more resources, check out this list of 65 Internship Scholarships, or email me directly at [email protected]. To learn more about what I’m doing in South Africa this summer, check this out.