If you’re like me, and you subscribed to National Geographic and the early days of the Discovery channel, you’ve probably been bitten by the travel bug at one time or another. If you’re a student, you’ve likely seen the cost and been discouraged by the resources necessary to make it happen. I was one of those students and am largely one of those out-of-school adults. But I figured some stuff out through my two decades on this here earth, and I figured I’d share those tips with you. This is a Ticket for Two after all, what good is this knowledge if not shared?
This is the story of how I went to Japan in 2007 and Brazil in 2012.
So in 2007, my family gets a letter from People to People. They sent a letter with a wax-stamp sticker on the seal with heavy cardstock paper saying that I had been chosen to participate in a study abroad trip to Japan for two weeks. My family, fully aware that I was knee-deep in my otaku phase, told me about the letter and let me know that if I wanted to go, they’d do everything in their power to help me do it. I told them I was in, and thus the fundraising efforts began.
The trip was $6,000. The price was fluctuating constantly because gas prices were constantly moving up. It felt like the finish line was constantly moving further and further away. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s begin with what I did first.
1. Local Outreach
I sat down at my computer and begin researching all of the local community organizations that could possibly support a young student like me. Churches, membership clubs, and local businesses. I wrote them letters, detailing the trip, where to find information on it, the billing information, and information about myself. This part is necessary because you need to prove you’re not Joanne the Scammer.
Many people might not engage you simply because that’s a risk they’d be taking – anybody can make a plea for money. There are a few ways to mitigate this – you can see if your study abroad program will allow supporters to make direct payments to the program themselves. This way, the money doesn’t have to go through you.
It was tiresome work, and my parents were constantly on my back about sending more and more letters out. At once, I was being surprised by the kindness of others while also feeling a tad hopeless. I felt like I was shouting into the void when letters went unanswered, or when they were returned to me. I felt disappointed when I got rejection letters. But, overall, this method earned me at least $1,000 total. It took a few months of constant letter writing, but it got done. I kept note of all of the folks that reached out to me for future thank you notes.
2. Local Outreach Pt. 2, Local Newspaper Ads or Online
This method is not for the heavily dignified! At the time, I had a blonde afro, and this blonde afro was published in daily papers and taped to change jars in local gas stations. *Shudders* I didn’t get much cash from this method, but I did get a few hundred. That’s something. And I got a bit of notoriety from it, for better or worse. People knew what I was trying to do, and if they couldn’t help me, they often knew someone who could. Sites like GoFundMe didn’t exist at the time, but those are available as well for fundraising.
While I didn’t have any easily exploitable talents (I can make…bottle cap earrings and…mini bowling pin earrings?), my father had a knack for frying fish. So that’s what we did. We asked a local barbershop to use some of their land to set up a fish fry. This, as a young teenager, was the worst part of my fundraising process because it involved lots of family interaction, and lots of actual work! We were running a miniature business, weekend after weekend, and it was annoying how my parents became my bosses, and it made for unpleasant times. We made a bit of cash via this method tho, so there’s that. Plus, I learned a lot. They weren’t lying when they said they’d help!
If you do have an exploitable talent or a neighborhood of folks who could use some help, put yourself to work and walk dogs, set up a lemonade stand, or knit quilts. Not only will this let more people aware of your cause, it’ll also instill in you some worth ethic. You’ll really have earned your experience.
This one’s a bit of a no-brainer. My family had a final barbecue before I left for Japan, and family members bid their goodbyes and gave me cards with money in them. I also took down their names for thank you cards and souvenirs.
As I said before, the price of the trip was constantly changing, and before I knew it, the trip was paid for and I was on a flight to Tokyo. My parents kept me in the dark about a few things…
My parents ending up taking out a loan for the remainder of my trip to Japan. A fact I wasn’t privy to until I was in college. When my parents told me this, I was still trying to understand credit as a concept, so I was innately horrified by the idea of debt. I’m no longer that way, debt can be a tool, let’s just say it’s like fire? While useful when tamed and harnessed, it can burn everything down if you’re not careful. But after they told me this, my point of view was that debt was deadly, and I wanted to make sure every dime for my next trips around the world was to be my responsibility.
This brings us to Brazil.
So I’m going about my required listening hours for my Portuguese course, when I spot an ad from the CIEE for upcoming trips abroad for students. I immediately hone in on the summer trip to Salvador da Bahia. It was known to me for its population of African descendants, and the African diaspora is something I’ve always been interested in. I logged into the CIEE site to see that they required a $50 appication fee. I had been working at this point, so I paid the fee myself and quietly applied for the hell of it. This is a thing I do often, casting a wide net. It comes in handy, as I’ll explain later.
7. Get a job.
I was in school at the time and I was able to work a part-time job at IKEA. In addition to furnishing my dorm room with tons of textiles and decorative plants, it also gave me cash and paid time off. I was able to take a leave of absence to study abroad, and ended up getting two checks while I was away. It was a marriage of perfect harmony, and I picked up where I left off once I got back. While not every retail gig is as accommodating as mine was, it’s worth examining the polices at your job and seeing your options.
8. Talk to the movers and shakers around you who are already doing what you want to do.
At my alma mater, Morgan State University, I knew a few folks who coordinated study abroad programs and I went to them to ask them what they knew. They put me on to some scholarships and they also pointed out even more contacts that could help me (worked out magically). I met some people at my university who helped me on the spot. It was astonishing, honestly. On top of that, I met students who were also planning or had done study abroad, and they were able to tell me about all sorts of programs (one of which I later applied for and got accepted into). You’re not alone in the process, so reach out to anyone you know. Professors whose areas of study overlap with yours, study abroad advisors, and so on.
9. Renegotiate any funds you already receive.
I had been fortunate enough to receive a four year scholarship for my college education, and I wondered if they would allow me to renegotiate my final year’s payment to go towards study abroad. I contacted them via email and when they described to me the terms under which they would allow this -providing them with a billing statement and information about the program- they allowed me to direct my last year’s stipend towards study abroad. Staying on top of all the comings and goings of my process allowed me to be very forthcoming with them, and I took down their address so I knew where to direct their thank you card as well. They were impressed by my tenacity but also by my organizational skills, which reminds me-
10. Throughout all of this, stay on top of the process. Stay organized.
Something my sister taught me is that organization goes a long way both in utility and in appearance. I created a binder of all of my files for my application process, the money I had received thus far and from whom, billing statements, essays, and so on. Whenever I approached people about helping me in my journey, I would present this binder to them. They rarely read it all, but when they flipped through and saw how exhaustively I had chronicled my progress, they would remark about how impressive it was and how it made me look like I was on top of things. It also made me seem like less of a scammer.
With one final donation, I was able to afford my plane tickets and it was finished. I was able to pay $6,000 tuition and travel costs to Brazil for the low, low price of $50 for the application fee! Once I paid for the tickets, I sat down in shock. A whirlwind of months, no more than three really, had led to this! It was magical! Having learned from my failures and successes the first time around, I was able to figure out a way to finance my study abroad.
But then again, I didn’t do it alone.
So about all of those thank you cards.
Throughout any process in which I have to ask for the support of others, I keep note of their information so that I may give back to them in any way possible. In Japan, I practiced this with a special sort of Thank You card. Before I left, I crafted a poster that said, “Domo!” along with domo in Kanji, and the translation, “Thank You!” underneath. A little Japanese and American flag for decoration.
I took photos with it around Japan and when I returned, I went to Walmart.com and printed out thank you cards. I sent them to all the folks and organizations that supported me. I did the same for Brazil, although I didn’t have a poster, just a photo of me with lots of swag…. But that’s not the point.
The point is, be thankful. Be grateful that you were given the opportunity and that people believed in you enough to fuel your dreams and goals. Make sure they know it.
Now that I’m out of school, I’m always looking to “travelhack” and try and game the system, but I still keep my old contacts updated. Some of them are genuinely interested in my career path, and that support is always appreciated- they sorta got me to where I am now. Those experiences they were able to give me helped shaped the girl you see today. I can’t be more thankful.
SO! All you wanderlust filled folk out there trying to figure it out, take these tips and go forth. Go boldly where other hopeful students have gone before and find new paths and new places. If these tips help you, I’d love to know!
Aproveite o dia! Seize the day!