Vassar helps low-income students see parts unknown

I remember the day that permission slips were due for the annual 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. “I love this trip,” my social studies teacher said, “It’s often the first and last time in these kids’ lives that they’ll get to see D.C. It truly is special.” In a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, although only 150 miles away from the nation’s capital, this is unfortunately true—a lot of my classmates would never see Washington D.C., New York City, or much of anything outside of the metro area if not for these school field trips. For those in more isolated areas, naturally, this is more prevalent. Nonetheless, traveling, for a great deal of people, is a luxury for which the time and money just cannot be easily sacrificed.

When I got to Vassar and realized how well traveled my new peers were, I was intimidated. Suddenly it seemed like travel was yet another type of social capital, and while I still felt excited to finally have the chance to travel, I felt a little “uncultured” because I had not seen the world. Fortunately, Vassar has afforded me the chance to accomplish what was previously a lofty dream, which I believe has had incredibly positive effects. For low-income students, travel can inspire and present new interests while promoting self-discovery all in a new and exciting environment that, for some, may be like nothing they’ve previously seen.

In areas comprised of mainly working-class and middle-class people, young people are usually surrounded by peers who have had similarly limited exposure to the world around them, making it difficult for them to envision life anywhere else. Even if they want to, at this age, many are trying to make it through school, hold down a job, or usually both at the same time. For those who have had the opportunity to get out and attend a school with excellent financial aid, travel should be a priority and an opportunity.

During this time of freedom, especially financial freedom, low-income students finally have the opportunity to work on themselves and be free of many of the at-home responsibilities that are both time-consuming and stressful. College, while academically rigorous, is largely a shocking respite for these students where so much of the basic necessities are provided for them, enabling them to take full advantage of educational and career-related opportunities. Vassar and its peers generously offer many opportunities for students to see different parts of the country and the world, which only enhances these effects for low-income students who, if not for their school and its financial assistance, may never have had that chance. These opportunities are largely inspirational, as they allow students to experience things and places that they have only read about and seen pictures of with educational components which can broaden their worldview and maybe even spark an interest in a new area of study.

Participating in a college-sponsored trip, such as Vassar’s annual International Studies trip, can alleviate many of the worries that students may have, as things like museums and meals are often planned and sometimes even covered by financial aid. Then, students can then freely enjoy their experience without having to stress over paying for food or miss out on one of many special learning experiences.

The structure of the trip allows for exploration as well as direction, so that less time is spent worrying about planning, logistics, and foreign transportation, which can all be very overwhelming for someone who has not done much traveling on their own. Nevertheless, these programs still allow students to be independent, which is often very important to low-income students who are used to doing things for themselves, and to see and do things that interest them in their free time.

Being around other students from their college that they might already know with is also helpful, especially if they do not speak the language and others do, as it can be easier to establish a support network and to be honest about their financial constraints when traveling with friends. This can be especially difficult, since more affluent students may be inclined to splurge whenaway while low-income students cannot. By having friends and professor or leaders who are understanding of this and do not plan expensive outings, students can feel comfortable and included without endangering themselves financially. In these endeavors, accessibility is key, and fortunately colleges are making more of an effort to ensure that this is recognized and to do what they can to make the experience of traveling not just an opportunity, but one that can be enjoyed by the stuents who take part.

The benefits of travel for low-income students are absolutely innumerable, especially for those who have lived in isolated communities. While these communities can be diverse, it is important that these students, who are equally intelligent and curious be exposed to and immersed in completely different cultures. They will be especially receptive if they have never had such an experience before in their lives, and likely more open-minded when exploring or staying in underprivileged neighborhoods. Because they have had to provide for themselves, they will also be appreciative of these populations’ hardships and be more understanding of cultural norms that may be deemed “not clean enough” or “uncomfortable” by students who have lived in more privileged circumstances and do not see as direct a connection.

Therefore, they will be able to get more out of their experience because, chances are, they have lived in less comfortable conditions than those they are traveling in. And because they have not already “seen the world,” they will be able to approach these experiences with open hearts and a will to learn because, coming from their home communities, they know that traveling is a unique privilege. After traveling abroad, these students will be able to share their experiences with friends and family who may have never, and may never be able to travel, broadening their knowledge as well.

As colleges begin to understand the benefits of extending full aid to low-income students, they must take into account the incredible benefits of going abroad for these students and make opportunities and funding known to them as accessible as possible. By doing so, they can strengthen students’ experiences, which are already diverse and very significant ion their lives. Because these low-income students are often very mature and independent, they are already very well prepared to travel and eager to learn and experience.

For students from low-income backgrounds, these characteristics will enable them to apply their knowledge from abroad to their home and school communities in useful ways as well as inspire other, younger students of similar backgrounds that they, too, can achieve what may seem out of their reach.


—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College

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