Widgets Magazine


The economic disparities of being abroad

In most ways my time studying abroad in Japan has been very positive. But while Stanford has eliminated the physical barrier for lower-income individuals to study abroad, the expensive spending culture prevalent in many study abroad programs remains in Stanford’s. Simple remedies do exist that could mitigate this, though.

At other schools, study abroad can be much more expensive than studying on campus. Living can cost more, people eat out for meals more frequently and then there are costs incurred by commuting to class. As a result, study abroad often has a reputation of elitism associated with it: Rich individuals go abroad for a term to essentially take a vacation for a semester, traveling around Europe with a much lighter course load.

I’ve personally observed many students who studied abroad for a full year and came back no better at the foreign language they went abroad to learn than before they left — quite counter to the purpose of going abroad. Granted, it might be more difficult to become fluent in a language while studying these days since that English is more common abroad, but the result is still not what one should expect.

This is in stark contrast with Stanford’s Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP). Stanford’s program, thanks in large part to the generosity of Peter and Helen Bing, allows students who want to study abroad to simply pay their normal tuition to Stanford. This means that students on financial aid pay the same amount to study abroad as they would to study on campus. Furthermore, housing and food fees tend to be cheaper abroad than on campus, a benefit of not being on the meal plan. Including the price of my airfare to and from Japan, I actually spend less money for school during my term abroad in Kyoto than I would at Stanford. There are many reasons that about 50 percent of each Stanford graduating class studies abroad (and the percentage is still growing), but one of them is certainly the economic accessibility of BOSP.

While Stanford makes study abroad less expensive for low-income students, the history of study abroad and the culture associated with it from other schools still pressures students to spend. For example, while fairly cheap, travel costs in Kyoto, Japan — where I study — add up quickly. If one wants to go to a shrine (a key and wonderful feature of Kyoto’s culture that makes it the home of many World Heritage Sites), a round trip usually costs $5 to $10, entrance fees are about the same and lunch and dinner will add another $15 or so. Cumulatively, you might spend $25 in a day. Although the sights are all worth it, when you live in a city with hundreds of places worth seeing, spending around $20 a day can become $200 in less than a month — and this is just for the essential parts of study abroad. If you add in drinking parties, travel to nearby cities with more history and more to see or even just essential costs like buying a phone for emergencies, the cost goes up even more.

This need to travel certainly exists in other programs, too. While one may be in Paris, you cannot simply stay in Paris and not go on weekend trips to see Marseilles, Bordeaux, Madrid, Berlin and London, as well as club in each of those cities while you are near them. I am speaking a bit hyperbolically, but this sentiment does exist for many students studying abroad. This is where coming from a poorer background can mean having to say no to trips and activities with everyone else. It is an experience that can be isolating. In part, I believe this to be the legacy of programs that have historically been for wealthy individuals at a university that still does (and will into the unforeseeable future) have a socio-economic disparity, with a disproportionate amount of students coming to Stanford from rich backgrounds.

How can Stanford combat this? One major way is to shift more of the focus of the study abroad programs onto the host cities themselves. I think Kyoto already does this quite well: It features classes about Japanese culture, religion and politics that all take field trips in Kyoto and occasional trips to nearby cities (all of which are paid for by the program). To further strengthen this idea, travel passes for transportation within the city could drastically increase intra-city travel: There are so many sights to see in Florence itself, for example, and it seems silly to travel hundreds of miles to see a famous statue when there are marvelous works that you have yet to see in your host city. Programs might also work to emphasize the great activities worth doing locally and help organize student trips, allowing people to better get to know each other as well.

Finally, if the program in Kyoto is any testament, Stanford does a fantastic job of selecting host families that actually care about and want to get to know their students. Traveling makes this quite difficult, and being a classic tourist limits one’s ability to advance one’s language acquisition. There is certainly value in getting to know an area well, and becoming close friends with people abroad is a great joy.

These ideas and goals are already advanced by BOSP to a certain extent, but could be pursued a bit more strongly. Economic disparities cannot be neutralized overnight, but they certainly should not characterize and define the study abroad experience. Adjusting BOSP could help students have an even better experience abroad while also breaking down some of the economic barriers that still exist.


Contact Joe Troderman at jtrod93 “at” stanford.edu.

About Joe Troderman

Joe Troderman is a columnist for The Stanford Daily. He is a member of the class of 2016 from Canton, Mass. (it's near Boston) pursuing a major in chemical engineering. Joe is passionate about the environment and enjoys playing poor-quality improvisational music on any stringed instrument he can find. To contact him, please mail him at jtrod93 'at' stanford.edu or P.O. Box 13387, Stanford, Calif. (even if it is just ad hominem attacks on his character, it will make his day to receive a letter that isn't for car insurance or bank accounts).
  • authentic travel

    I have no problem with this article, Joe; you stated one viewpoint well and I respect its validity. My comment is directed toward the viewpoint itself.

    Quite simply, it’s nonsense to say that local travel (conditioned on being in the country in the first place, I mean) has to be expensive. Not only that: expensive travel is boring and shallow. You don’t need to eat out at the hip places. Find the local grocery and buy the local foods. You get way more variety, quality, and authenticity of food, as well as adventure in eating, by doing this, and grocery food is as cheap as food can be. There’s nothing like a long day of tromping the streets of an old city, stopping to buy interesting food at a nearby grocer when you’re hungry.

    Similarly, clubbing and whatnot is nonsense. You can jam yourself into a loud place with young sweaty people right here in the US; don’t waste time on it elsewhere. Wander the streets and parks of a foreign city at night (in a group, of course: never alone unless you’re experienced; and *never* drunk): it can be amazing. During the day, go to the libraries and the old buildings, and so on: I hope I don’t have to spell it out, but there’s a lot of really interesting stuff to do in any city that isn’t packaged into a bought experience.

    At the end of it, instead of being a spoiled brat like a lot of college kids seem to be when they go overseas, you’ll be an experienced and self-reliant traveler, and you’ll have the confidence that comes from knowing you can have really rich and authentic experiences without paying for tailored ones.

    Still, it’s true that just doing an overseas program with a university means you’re kind of buying into the whole packaged experience. Why not just strike out on your own?

  • Unnecessary

    BOSP, from what you’ve said, already does a great deal to minimize barriers for students with financial needs. So enough with this egalitarian drivel.

    At Stanford, wealthier students often own cars, eat out at the finer restaurants in the area, can afford nicer alcohol, and can undertake expensive trips to Cabo, Tahoe, Vegas, Napa, and more. That’s the way it is, but it does not exclude those with lesser means from having an enjoyable time without relying on these expensive pursuits. And when wealthy students go abroad and spend money (God forbid they do that), again, nothing is preventing the less privileged students from having an enjoyable, rewarding time.

    Like another commenter said, shop at grocery stores, local markets, and authentic restaurants. It’s what the locals do, so your dining experiences will be more authentic. If all your study abroad friends go on an expensive weekend vacation that you cannot afford, why not use that as an excuse to travel alone, on the cheap, and stay in hostels meeting people who don’t/didn’t go to Stanford (God forbid any Stanford student branches out). If your whole crowd wants to pay a huge cover at a club, then state your objections and propose another idea- there will likely be at least one person who finds your alternative more agreeable.

  • Stanford alum

    As a low-income student, studying abroad can be a daunting prospect. I felt similarly during my study abroad experience at Oxford. Although I experienced quite a bit of price shock at the high prices, I learned to be creative and put my thrifty skills to work. Rather than dine out at the chic, popular eateries or (not-so-chic) pubs, I checked out local groceries to find out the best prices. Instead of taking public transport, if something was within walking distance (so up to 4 miles or so for me), I walked. Although I didn’t get to do any of the typical travel adventures many of my classmates did (hopping around Europe, traveling to Paris on the weekends, etc), I still managed to get a rich traveling experience. I got to see a lot of the town during my long walks (got lost a few times but luckily the locals were usually nice) and although traveling to London from Oxford was expensive, I walked a lot in London and got to see so much of it–from Trafalgar Square to Greenwich to Westminster, there was so much to see and enjoy–any many places are free and open to the public if you know where to look!

  • Joe Troderman

    To all who have replied thoughtfully to my article, I thank you for your comments. I would also like to thank you for taking the time to read my article and think sincerely about it.

    I certainly agree with Stanford Alum and Authentic Travel that there are ways to live cheaper, and I am not exactly speaking to personal experience, as I planned to be abroad, saved up as much money as I could, and live quite thriftily abroad, which makes much of this not a serious issue for me. I also do not go clubbing, but I know it to be a big thing for many people and (from what I have heard) a good experience to have at least once in Europe. That being said, I do not mean to suggest that people should try to spend as much money as they can or that people who are wealthier should not be allowed to spend their own money.

    Instead, my intention was to merely point out that there is a disparity and that it can be challenging. Many may not be aware of how fantastically BOSP does on economic issues.The fact does remain though, that Stanford on campus and abroad have issues of economic disparity. Of course, one can always speak up with objections to the cost of events. I do agree here. But this can also be an isolating thought (and it is also very difficult to be “that guy” who always objects to a plan). Branching out to outside BOSP is also fantastic and really if you did not do this, your experience abroad would be quite incomplete in my opinion. But there is also something to being in the small Stanford community abroad and having that community be open to everyone in it. I never say that less wealthy individuals cannot have a rewarding experience, but there are some challenges involved, that is all I say.

    That being said, Authentic Travel is correct that you can do free things and that one needn’t travel all over to get a great experience (although I wouldn’t go as far as to call it entirely shallow). In fact, I completely agree that going to the market, eating at smaller restaurants, etc.–living like the citizens of the country in which you are studying rather than as a tourist–is extremely rewarding and much more formative. My homestay experience in Kyoto definitely has taught me this. But for all this, pressures can exist for lower income students. Of course, no one really intends to put these pressures on. It is really more an issue of awareness: a student who has never had to deal with economic issues will not have that as a consideration when making plans, etc. This holds abroad and at Stanford. Being part of any group can certainly create pressures. Awareness of these pressures and an open dialogue are very important, so I appreciate your inputs on this subject!