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First Gen Abroad removes barriers

Six students pose for a photo with their hands in the air while sitting on camels.
Students from the First Gen Abroad – Seville program on an excursion to Morocco in 2017.

The opportunity to study abroad will be open to more first-generation students throughout the Washington State University system this summer with the return of First Gen Abroad.

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID, First Gen Abroad is sending students to Rome and Seville, Spain, this May. More than 35 students are traveling, making this year’s cohort the biggest since First Gen Abroad began traveling in 2015.

“Coming out of the pandemic, I’m so excited that we’re able to achieve two First Gen Abroad programs,” said Angie Klimko, the director of First at WSU. “We’re ready to continue removing barriers to studying abroad and providing a valuable international experience that sets our students apart.”

Providing a supportive experience

First Gen Abroad is a uniquely supportive, individualized study abroad program that starts before students even leave the United States. Students take a one-credit class the semester before they depart that covers key information such as what to expect in their host country, cultural values and bias, how to get a passport, and what to pack. Two advisors lead the course and travel with the students to ensure they have a safe, positive experience.

“I’ve never gone abroad before and it’s overwhelming to think about without having any knowledge of what to do, so having guidance from the advisors has been really beneficial,” said Kole Lappe, a sophomore international business major participating in First Gen Abroad-Seville this summer.

The classes students take in their host city are rooted in that’s city’s history and culture; for example, students on the Rome trip will participate in a “walking classroom” where they will visit the art and architecture they’re studying. The courses count toward the students’ degree requirements as either UCORE or upper-division credits – a key feature of the program, Klimko said, because it means studying abroad doesn’t add additional time to a student’s degree completion, which can be a major concern for first-gen students.

Perhaps the most unique feature is that all the students who participate in the program are first gen, Klimko said, and their shared identity helps create a common experience and lifelong bond.

“First Gen Abroad really makes it possible for us,” said Jerry Martinez, a finance major who traveled to Rome in 2018. “Being surrounded by people who have never been outside the country as well, who have never had that experience – it was really comforting to know that you’re not the only one going through this.”

Several students pose in front of ruins with a WSU Cougar flag that reads "We are #GenerationStudyAbroad".
Students in First Gen Abroad – Rome program on an excursion to Pompeii in 2018.

Breaking barriers

First-gen students face barriers to studying abroad that other students may not – particularly financial barriers, Klimko said. First Gen Abroad is designed to be affordable, and Klimko works with students individually on financial aid and payment options and helps raise funds to support students in the program.

This year, students in the program have financial support from donors Gary Schneidmiller (’71 BA Busi., ’73 MA Agribusi. Econ.) and Chris Navan (’13 BA Intl. Busi., ’14 MBA), who have made generous contributions to First Gen Abroad to help offset the cost of the program and associated travel. Navan said his own experience as a first-gen student studying abroad motivated him to contribute to the program.

“There’s a lot of growth and camaraderie that comes from studying abroad,” he said. “If I can give to someone from a similar background as me who may have decided not to go abroad because of limited financial opportunities, this is a good way for me to contribute and give that opportunity to someone in this program.”

Seeing the impact that donors like Navan and Schneidmiller have on student participation is why the Division of Student Affairs has made First Gen Abroad the focus of their 2022 CougsGive Day giving campaign. On April 13, the division will encourage the WSU community to contribute to the program and help first-gen Cougs study abroad.

“Often, due to financial barriers or other things, students think study abroad isn’t in the cards for them,” Klimko said. “But it changes their lives, and the impact only expands from there. One student going abroad can influence generations to come.”

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