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First-generation college students take advantage of study abroad opportunities

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

three students display a #FirstGenProud sign
Students and faculty pose with #FirstGenProud sign in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of José Uscanga, Ferguson College of Agriculture, director of multicultural programs)
After two years of anticipation, Ferguson College of Agriculture students were eager to travel abroad and earn course credit this summer. Each of the three courses were taught by faculty and focused on a specific area of the agricultural industry:
•          Panama; entomology, conservation and environmental science
•          Czech Republic; agricultural education, communications and leadership
•          Mexico; One Health approach, including veterinary and medical sciences
“Studying abroad is invaluable for any student, but the benefit of first-generation college students studying abroad is greater in many ways,” José Uscanga, director of multicultural programs, said. “Research shows a positive correlation in retention for first-generation students who have these international experiences compared to those who don’t.”
Uscanga also shared that despite first-generation students being aware of opportunities to earn course credit abroad, unique barriers can prevent them from pursuing these opportunities.
Gracie Norris, a recent agricultural education graduate who studied in the Czech Republic, said she had always known she wanted to study abroad.
“Finances were the biggest thing that held me back freshman year,” Norris said. “I’ve had to pay my way through college, and even though studying abroad has always been a goal of mine, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it without scholarships.”
After sitting out in 2019 and travel courses being placed on hold for two years, Norris spoke with her advisor, Rob Terry, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership, to share her concerns and see if studying abroad would be possible.
“Dr. Terry helped reassure me that there are plenty of scholarship dollars available and suggested I come to an information session,” Norris said. “It was such a relief when I found out I had received the scholarship a few weeks later.”
Uscanga said Norris’ story is common among first-generation students. In 2019, he wrote a grant proposal that would award scholarships for about 20 first-generation college students. It was approved in early 2020.
Scholarships from the grant were awarded in summer 2022, and Uscanga said he has already seen the reward.
The Ferguson College of Agriculture had a total of 48 students study abroad this summer, and 25% of those students are classified as first-generation students. Uscanga said he is pleased to see such high numbers in the college compared to a nationwide average of 9%.
“I want first-generation students to know that studying abroad is within reach for them,” Uscanga said.
Jeronimo Lara, an animal science sophomore who studied in Mexico, was one of the many students Uscanga encouraged to apply.
“I was a little hesitant to apply after I saw the price tag,” Lara said. “But I spoke with Dr. Uscanga about my concerns, and he was so encouraging. Being a first-generation student himself, he totally understood where I was coming from.
“You can tell how dedicated he and the entire college is to help provide these experiences for first-generation students.”
While finances are one of the main barriers for students studying abroad, Norris believes that a lack of travel experience can be daunting for first-generation students as well.
“Travel was never a priority for my family, and I had only flown once prior to my study abroad,” Norris said. “Navigating airports, customs and public transportation in a foreign language was intimidating at first, but having faculty and staff with us gave me the safety net I needed while I grew my confidence.”
One of the main benefits of studying abroad is learning the “language of travel,” Uscanga said. Faculty-led study abroad courses are popular within the college because students can overcome challenges and grow independence in a safe environment. 
Lara said he is grateful for his experience abroad.
“We got to have such a raw, hands-on experience during veterinary clinics,” Lara said. “We performed about three surgeries a day that were led by OSU College of Veterinary Medicine faculty.
“I didn’t have any previous experience with horses or surgeries outside of an operating room, but I learned so much and it’s a unique experience that most of my peers haven’t gotten,” he continued.
After reflecting on his time in Mexico, Lara said he feels invigorated to continue pursuing a career in veterinary medicine.
“My love for serving others was strengthened a lot during this trip,” Lara said. “Getting to know the locals and hearing their stories while providing a service that’s not readily available in their area was the most rewarding part of my entire experience.
“It confirmed my passion for the field of veterinary medicine and solidified my desire to serve a rural community once I earn my doctorate.”
While in the Czech Republic, Norris interviewed for and was offered an agricultural education teaching position at an Oklahoma high school.
“I am so excited to share everything I’ve learned with my students,” Norris said. “Studying abroad has changed the way I see the agricultural industry on a global scale, and I hope that I can inspire my students to pursue international experiences when they attend college.”

Story by: Hunter Gibson
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