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Low-income students face red tape when seeking study abroad

The University claims that studying abroad is available to all students, regardless of their financial situations. Some low-income students have had frustrating experiences trying to coordinate a study abroad trip and feel that the scholarship and study abroad offices are not as helpful as they are advertised.

“This is an issue that we’re really aware of, obviously, in the Office of Scholarships and (Student) Aid. We don’t want students to be shy about studying abroad, because there are actually many programs that are cheaper than being here on campus. If finances are an issue, they can apply the financial aid that they’re already receiving to any study abroad program,” said Associate Director for Scholarships Dan Thornton. 

The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid encourages low-income students to study abroad. Thornton said that there are many year-long and semester programs that are very affordable, some costing the same or less than a semester or year at UNC, even when travel and cost of living are factored in. 

Jamie Ramos is a Carolina Covenant Scholar who will be studying abroad in London next semester. While preparing to go abroad, Ramos said she has become familiar with several institutional inefficiencies that create obstacles for low-income students to travel. 

The Carolina Covenant is a promise for eligible low-income students to have the opportunity to graduate from Carolina debt free, through grants, scholarships and work loans. 

She said there are six obstacles that prevent low-income students from going abroad, even if they have access to scholarships or grants that are supposed to pay for studying abroad. Attendance budget sheets are inaccurate and outdated, outside scholarships are difficult to access, study abroad expenses affect taxes and future financial aid, application timelines create difficulties — i.e. classes starting earlier or later in other countries — loans are becoming more common for Covenant students going abroad and lack of deferment options for application fees make applying difficult.  

For example, Ramos has the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which specifically covers study abroad and will give her as much money as she requests through UNC’s study abroad office without question.

But because UNC's study abroad office will only allow students to send a pre-made cost of attendance sheet on the Heels Abroad website, Ramos cannot use the study abroad component of that Gates scholarship to its full potential.

Although Ramos hoped to travel to Australia, administrative inefficiencies meant she could not access her financial aid until the school semester at UNC began, so she could not participate in the Australian program because it started in July instead of August.

Another Carolina Covenant student, Alexis Dunlap, hoped to study abroad, but when the Study Abroad Office did not return her phone calls, she eventually gave up and does not currently plan to study abroad. 

“I know they got the messages because someone updated my portal to reflect a new date of scholarship release. I tried to express how my financial status had changed dramatically since my 2016 tax returns — my mom had gone on disability since then — but I am a Covenant Scholar anyway,” Dunlap said.

Ramos said the University should calculate more realistic costs of attendance, allow outside scholarships like her Gates scholarship and create a low-income study abroad support group to discuss problems and solutions. 

“If you’re a low-income student who wants to study abroad, you need to be prepared to fight for it. Don’t renounce yourself to not going, and don’t renounce yourself to debt. Fight for it and tell people about the issues you are facing, because if every one of us that faces these institutional barriers fights for this, we cannot be ignored,” Ramos said. 


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