Academic Classes and Social Classes: The Accessibility of Global Virtual Experiences for Low-Income Students

Syd O'Wesney

Why This Matters

As a low-income, first generation college student, studying abroad almost wasn’t possible for me. I received considerable scholarships during my time in undergraduate studies, but even then, the nature of higher education in the United States forced me to take out student loans. Fearing the considerable debt that plagues many people for decades after they obtain their college degree, I knew that the only way to make studying abroad accessible to me financially was to do an extensive amount of research and planning even before I graduated high school. Up until graduate school, I had most often found myself working two jobs throughout my college experience. Taking solely College Credit Plus courses my senior year (which is the ability to take college courses during high school) allowed me to both study abroad and graduate a semester early. Had I not wanted to study abroad, I likely would have graduated a year early. Not everyone has the time or energy to put this much effort into making study abroad a reality for them.

As I outlined in my first blog post, I had to intricately plan my study abroad experience around a lot of loopholes to make it affordable for me. The reason I am so transparent about this is because I want people to understand how much work it took to make this possible, and how much of it involved me getting lucky. Miami University has extensive study abroad services and offerings, making it easier for me to access than if I had attended an institution without such resources. Even then, it was still a lot of work, worry, and exhaustion. I would never trade the experience for the world, as it has shaped much of my worldview and continues to as I reflect on it today, but it’s made me far more aware of how difficult it is for students like me to participate as well.

Accessibility and equity hugely influence my student affairs practice. Regardless of the functional area I decide to work in in higher education, they will be at the forefront of everything that I do. Knowing that I am the exception to a lot of what students with my identities experience when it comes to higher education, I want to make this environment more accessible and equitable for everyone. It not only informs my practice, but it informs how I think about these blog posts. I want to be as realistic as I can about the state of higher education in the United States, and specifically about study abroad for the nature of these posts. And so, I want to discuss the possible benefits of global virtual experiences for students like myself. Having had an in-person study abroad experience and now a virtual interning experience, I have an idea of what goes into both. In this, I hope to encourage students to consider these virtual experiences, as they do carry a considerable amount of weight in our virtualizing world.

Global Virtual Experiences for Low-Income Students

If you haven’t read my previous blog post about remote intercultural skills, I recommend doing so, as I will be building on what I covered there in this post. As previously discussed, global virtual experiences can provide participants with a unique set of skills that will be coveted in our virtualizing and globalizing world. Covid-19 has created a growing interest in virtual or hybrid employment because of the many potential benefits. Productivity increases, saving money on rent and utilities, and employee satisfaction are all benefits to virtualizing employment. The ability to collaborate on a global scale has been more fully realized as well due to the rise of virtual work. What this means is that there is a rise in the desire for both virtual and global skills from potential candidates. This is where global virtual experiences come in. Partaking in a virtual internship allows participants to “double dip” in the sense that they are sharpening both of those skills in the same experience. 

The other benefit to these virtual experiences is that they are often considerably cheaper than going abroad. Flights, accommodation, and the part of the program fee that goes towards setting up those aspects are absent. You are essentially just paying for someone to find you a placement in your field and the country you’re interested in. Learn International also has a flat fee for virtual internships if you decide to extend your placement for a few weeks. If you decide to extend your in-person internship, on the other hand, you then have to pay more for extended housing. In comparing the same internship field for both in person and virtual, an intern can save over $4000 by interning virtually. For low-income students who cannot afford to fly and stay somewhere abroad, this is a great option to still engage in a global experience that would enhance their resume. 

I specifically am an advocate for interning virtually rather than taking classes because you can engage more fully in the work culture and experience a lot of the culture shock and adjustment you would if you were there in person. From my personal experience working with Learn International, I’ve learned a lot about the Irish work culture and how it differs from the United States. I’ve also had to be far more intentional with my interactions and communications due to the virtual environment, which I think adds a level of self reflection and responsibility that might not be there for an in-person experience. Although I would love to be in Ireland physically, I have still found this experience to be just as fulfilling, and has enhanced my virtual skills in wonderful new ways.

Conclusion

Study abroad has historically been an exclusive co-curricular practice used by wealthy students to maintain or increase their economic and social status. Even as more affordable programs continue to be made and more scholarships become available, it still remains out of reach for many low-income students. I believe that global virtual experiences are a way to level the playing field for college students of all income levels, as well as students whose schedules may not allow for study abroad. Student athletes or students in fields like STEM and education have a harder time studying abroad due to athletic contracts or the lack of room in their course schedules. Virtual experiences allow them that global experience without having to leave their other commitments behind. Overall, it is the more accessible option for students coming from a variety of backgrounds and identities.

Although it doesn’t have the same enticing allure as participating in an in-person program, I truly believe that global virtual experiences have a lot to offer. As our world begins to prioritize virtual skills, these experiences will become invaluable to a lot of participants. It also allows students to “travel” to and experience these places without going into debt or taking extra semesters to graduate. As someone currently participating in a virtual internship, what I’ve gained so far I wouldn’t give up for anything. I hope that this post has made a valuable argument for the value of global virtual experiences. For those longing for a global experience but feel it’s just out of reach, I highly recommend considering an option like this.

 

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