Money and Relationships: Studying Abroad as FGLI

Diana Venus, 2024, Anthropology, Psychology, she/her

Diana is a sophomore studying abroad in Italy. In this blog, she talks about navigating life abroad and its difficulties as a low-income student. This is an honest review of her one-month experience in Bologna with its discoveries, frustrations, and life lessons.

Part 1. Navigating real life

Here’s a “standard pack” of study abroad problems: your skin breaks out under a different climate, your stomach is upset by local food, your values/morals are in contradiction with those of the host culture, or you are frustrated by not being able to express yourself in the local language. These are the kind of difficulties that I see most of the students encounter. But what happens when, on top of those challenges, there is an added layer of financial insecurity?

As an international low-income student at Wesleyan, I was fascinated by the opportunity to study abroad and discover more of the world. I spent only two offline semesters at Wesleyan and was fortunate enough to make good friends and meet amazing professors in that period. On campus, I had gotten used to having secure housing, meals, and social support networks available to me every day. In fact, I had started taking those for granted, forgetting that Wesleyan is an exceptional quasi-utopian space.

Two weeks before going abroad it hit me: my life was about to become vastly different. I was told that studying abroad teaches students to be more independent, and the idea of “independence” sounded great. But I soon realized that for me, it also entailed facing the fact that I am poor. During my year of living in the “Wesleyan bubble” (a subtle way of saying among the rich and privileged), I did not have to cook, to clean, or even to manage the stresses of daily life. So going abroad for me was like jumping in the pool with little ability to swim.

And so I jumped in, burning my first meals, forgetting to wash the rice before cooking it, flooding the apartment, and stockpiling all my receipts on the bookshelf. I spent a good bit of the first month video calling my mom to cook together, making weekly lists for groceries, researching the cheapest places to get coffee, thrift clothes, buy a discount phone plan and a bike pass, filling reimbursement requests. Not exactly how you imagine studying abroad, right? But, honestly, with time, all that practical stuff has become manageable, or, at least, not scary to deal with. And I’m glad that I’m learning these skills because after I graduate Wesleyan, I’ll be ready for the “adult life.”

What’s been more difficult to handle is the feeling of alienation from other program members I experience as a marginalized student. You can imagine that most of the people who go to study abroad are well-off and able to eat out every day, travel to other cities and go shopping for nice souvenirs, whereas I live on a limited stipend that covers my basic needs. And even if I had the money to participate in leisure activities with American exchange students, I do not feel connected to them. Paradoxically, I feel much closer to some Italian strangers on the streets than to students coming from Wesleyan-alike universities. Is it a question of culture, privilege, socio-economic status, or background? I don’t know, it’s only been four weeks, after all…

Part 2. People help people

After all the complaining, I must admit that I really enjoy Italy. Despite its challenges, studying abroad has been a rich experience and I met some fun, interesting locals. Surprisingly, my financial situation has opened some doors for me, too! One month in, and I have connections with so many people who showed empathy and assistance to me.

For example, the OISA director Morgan supported me throughout the pre-arrival chaos and helped me get my US Visa renewal fee covered by the Wes emergency grant. The financial aid office director agreed to waive my student contribution for the next year so I can go home to Kyrgyzstan this summer. The study abroad office, especially Hannah, kept communication clear and transparent when working out the program’s budget sheet. The director of JCCP Rhea offered to store my campus belongings in her basement while I’m abroad, so I didn’t have to pay for private storage renting. My friends helped a lot, too! Ashley let me live in her program house over winter break before I left abroad, Aldrean helped me move all my stuff on a Zipcar, Cris gave me a ride to the New Haven train station. Finally, my friend Julien’s parents gave me a ride to the airport in New York. And I received all that support even before my plane took off!

Then, when I arrived in Italy, my friend Tommaso who I met a year ago as a remote Italian language assistant, gave me SO MANY of his cooking utensils that I didn’t have to worry about those extra costs. The ECCO program also had some blankets, hangers, and laundry bags remaining from last semester that I could use, and they offered an extra 20 euros to buy things for the new empty kitchen. Furthermore, I found out that the dorm I live in has a group chat which functions like mutual aid! Local students living here share stuff like eggs, pasta, batteries, etc., and this kind of exchange is completely normalized. In general, Italians I’ve met are very generous, friendly, and hospitable. Of course, all until you say out loud that the Italian kitchen is not the best in the world.

I feel like through this challenging experience, I am discovering and learning comradeship. So, I am incredibly grateful for people who have been showing me care and support.

As for my FGLI experience with the Wesleyan administration, I’ve come to believe that there are staff who really care about us; however, we should have the courage to advocate for ourselves and our community. So, speak up! Don’t hesitate to ask for help, you never know who might be waiting to give you a hand.