May 17, 2014

Unexpected Costs Give Students Studying Overseas Unwelcome Surprises

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Steffi Lee had been told about all the expected costs she might encounter while studying abroad from Simpson College of Indianola. Then, something quite unexpected came up.

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A $530 monthly stipend to help Lee, a 20-year-old sophomore, with costs while working as a teacher’s assistant at Krosno State College in Poland did not come.

Lee hadn’t been told she had to apply for a work permit before she could receive her stipend, which was to cover food and travel.

“We had to check into the work permit laws, which Simpson and Krosno hadn’t known they had changed … I didn’t get my stipend until a month living in Poland,” Lee said.

Lee’s story is an example of the kinds of additional costs that are not accounted for before college students go overseas as part of their studies.

The unanticipated costs can range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on the person spending the money. Blame can be spread around to students who do not prepare well enough but also colleges’ travel abroad directors who do not tell students enough about additional costs, several students at different small college in Iowa said in interviews.

StudyAbroad_Costs“Study abroad directors need to know if they need to update their paperwork and regulation information before people get stuck in another country, and being promised one thing and told another thing before they get to that country,” Lee said in one those interviews, for an IowaWatch project by senior journalism students at Simpson College about the hidden costs of overseas study.

Fortunately for Lee, Krosno eventually paid for her work permit application materials. Moreover, she said she’s happy that her situation was resolved, and that being able to travel mid-semester this year will end up being well worth it in the end. Lee will have been in Poland for three months before returning to the United States on May 24.

BREAKING DOWN THE COSTS

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An average cost of studying abroad has not been calculated because of the different types of programs available at universities and colleges. “The cost depends on what you are going to do, the travel, the accommodations and excursions that you do on the trip,” Jay Wilkinson, director of study abroad at Simpson College, said.

Lee said her known cost included the full amount of her $15,500 Simpson tuition, $1,930 room and board for the semester and her $1,000 airfare. Lee paid for her study abroad trip with financial aid for this semester and paid for her plane ticket out of pocket.

The Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) website lists several expenses for its study abroad trip to London: a $450 American Institute of Foreign study deposit, the $6,645 program cost, $1,000 for airfare and DMACC’s tuition for 12 credit hours, $1,569. A few other fees are listed, too: a refundable damage deposit of $250, an estimated textbook cost of $250 and suggested extra spending money: $1,500 to $3,000.

The Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) website lists several expenses for its study abroad trip to London: a $450 American Institute of Foreign study deposit, the $6,645 program cost, $1,000 for airfare and DMACC’s tuition for 12 credit hours, $1,569. A few other fees are listed, too: a refundable damage deposit of $250, an estimated textbook cost of $250 and suggested extra spending money: $1,500 to $3,000.

Fees colleges and universities in Iowa pass on to students vary depending on the length and the type of program a student chooses.

Maria Cochran, DMACC’s study abroad coordinator, said the college gives students tips on how to raise money, which includes applying for scholarships, working part-time, doing work study or becoming a peer tutor on campus, forming a raffle at family gatherings or, in lieu of presents for the holidays, asking family members for a contribution.

Study abroad directors said they try to find ways to make overseas studies more economical. “There’s no point having good programs if no one can afford them,” Trevor Nelson, director of study abroad center at Iowa State University, said.

The bottom line, Nelson said, is making study abroad programs more affordable to the most needy students. “We don’t want to put the student in a situation with unexpected costs,” Nelson said.

Students also can apply for a Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship, a national international study scholarship available to U.S. citizens who are undergraduates with limited financial means. At Simpson, ISU and DMACC, for example, students also can use other scholarship and financial aid packages.

SETTING A PROPER BUDGET

After the money situation is figured out, students have to prepare for their study abroad adventure. They receive information packages and often have to attend mandatory orientations.

“As far as the program is concerned everything is stated and spelled out for them,” Cochran said. “However, we tell them London is a very expensive city, and just living there it will be more expensive.”

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DMACC’s overseas study program includes breakfast for the students but other meals are not part of the package. Extra costs surprised DMACC student Jacob Reistroffer, 18, while he studied this spring in London.

“I don’t think they (DMACC) took into consideration if we wanted to do extra travel for that $3,000,” Reistroffer said, referring to the college’s suggested personal spending budget. “We don’t think they really updated the prices within the next year, because of the money exchange.”

Reistroffer said he ate out a lot, which cost him 6 to 7 British pounds each time, because meals were not included in his program. He started to make his own meals to save money, costing him 1 to 2 pounds per meal, depending on what he had bought at the store.

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December ISU graduate Emily Eikenberry had only one major, unexpected cost when she went to Spain in her junior year of college but it was an important one: public transportation. “Since I lived in the center of town and the school was outside, I had to get bus passes,” Eikenberry, 21, said.

Eikenberry spent a total of 83 euros, or about $114 U.S. dollars, for transportation during her stay in Spain. This covered the bus fare for 100 trips.

Simpson College alumna Brooke Avila of Des Moines can tell you about not properly budgeting for all of her total expenses during her trip to London when she was 20. That was in 1999. The extra expenses came from travel.

“Even though you get a weekly allowance to be there, the cost of travel, hostels or to go shopping,” Avila said.

“I probably maxed out a credit card or two while I was there.”

Avila said she and other members of her group had a weekly allowance of 100 pounds for food but often spent it on other things like shopping or activities. Avila estimated she spent at least $1,500 extra during her study abroad experience.

Avila had a dedicated credit card for the trip, which gave her the best exchange rate through an entire day even if the currency exchange rate fluctuated.

BEYOND MONEY

Unexpected costs can be more than financial. They can come in the form of an emotional toll. That was Simpson alumnus Brandon Hebert’s experience when he studied in London in 2009 during his junior year of college.

Hebert, 25, originally from Charles City, Iowa, but now living in Mankato, Minnesota, said he found during a pre-trip interview process that the majority of those traveling to London in his group were people he knew and who considered him a friend. However, things changed.

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“When I went to London with that group of people, my morals and ethics were different from theirs so it made it hard to spend time with them,” Hebert said.

“A lot of the time I spent alone,” he said. “I remember one time of breaking down in tears because I felt so alone, even though everyone considered me a friend and I considered them a friend.”

Despite that, Hebert said he is a stronger person for taking the trip.

Video Provided By: Simpson College

Simpson journalism students (from left) Katie Buchholz, Erin Gerken, Rachel Paterson and Cait Conner discussed their semester class project during an April 23 panel, Going Global, on the Simpson campus.

Katie Spleän studied in Germany in 2012 and 2013 in her junior year at Luther College, of Decorah, and said maintaining relationships back home while studying abroad was a struggle. “Some people I stayed really close with,” she said. “While other people, I just didn’t have the time to keep up with them during that time.”

Spleän said dealing with holidays might be difficult for a student when studying abroad.

“During Christmas time, I definitely really missed my home school and my home state as the holidays set in,” Spleän said. “I got to Skype with my family a lot, which is good, though depending on the person and circumstances that can be really tough.”

Spleän chose to stay in Germany over the holidays instead of going back home for a few weeks during break.

Even with the unexpected costs, students and former students who were interviewed about studying abroad said the same thing: it’s worth it.

“I left for the trip very naive to the world and came back much more resourceful as a person,” Avila said. “It really opened me up to other opportunities in the long term, such as jobs or where I have gone with my career.”

Avila, now 35, owns her own marketing business in Indianola called BA Innovations.

Avila said she probably spent at least $200 to $300 on plays and musicals, took an additional trip with her London group around Europe for a week, which cost about $500, and spent $200 to $300 shopping. She had not anticipated any of those expenses and none were needed for living in London.

She is fine with that.

“These were the things that cost me more in that trip, but I wouldn’t have traded it,” Avila said.

Cait Conner was on a team of Simpson College students doing this story for IowaWatch as part of a journalism class taught in spring 2014 by Professor Brian Steffen. Portions of this story were published by The Des Moines Register, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of making its news available free to media partners.

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