First-generation students in London explore documentaries as medium for storytelling

Isaiah Zaragoza

Two-hundred and fifty-two students left the Forty Acres to study abroad in England, according to the 2017-2018 Campus Impact Report. Those enrolled in associate professor Kate Dawson’s Maymester course, “Community Life: Documented,” spent their time documenting underrepresented groups in London. 

Some of these students come from underrepresented groups themselves. Dawson said she wanted a diverse group of people as part of the program. 

“What I hope for not only first-generation students but all my students to take from this program is there exists a city and or cities in every country that might be more diverse than Austin or your own town,” Dawson said.

The cost of the Maymester program was estimated at $8,148, but 61% of students rely on financial aid when they study abroad, according to the report.

Susana Blandon, a first-generation journalism student and UT alumna (2019), independently financed her participation in the Maymester course.

“I always worked and had two jobs during the semester,” Blandon said. “Everything I used here, I paid for it on my own or on my credit card.”

Kevin Laparra, a first-generation journalism and psychology senior, said he had a different experience when he financed for the program.  

“I didn’t apply for any scholarships, and I took out loans,” Laparra said. “So, in total, I had $8,000 for the entire program.”

Some students ventured across the English Channel to Paris or took a break from their studies to fly to Ibiza. Blandon said while she was in Europe, she was able to visit multiple cities in both England and nearby countries. Both Blandon and Laparra said the experience was enriching.

“I really liked interacting with the people from London,” Blandon said. “I found it interesting to see how their culture is different from ours even though it’s pretty similar.”  

Laparra said he took advantage of his opportunities overseas to go cliff jumping in Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain, where he was made fun of for his American accent.

In the program, students were grouped into teams of three to delegate responsibilities for their projects, which built not only relationships with their team but also with the entire class as well, Laparra said.  

“Everyone here is so intelligent and brings something different to the table,” Laparra said.

When she first started at UT, Blandon said her status as a first-generation student made her feel as though studying abroad was out of reach. She said when students see the price tag, they may be discouraged and feel like they can’t afford it.  

However, there are a number of scholarships and initiatives that directly target first-generation students. The First Abroad Planning Scholarship, Hutchison International Scholars and Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship are initiatives launched to increase first-generation students’ participation in study abroad programs, according to the 2017-2018 Campus Impact Report. 

Blandon said studying abroad is life-changing, perspective-altering and doable with scholarships. 

“When it comes to finances, it should not be a problem,” Laparra said. “And even if you have to take out a little loan like myself, the experience itself was so grand you shouldn’t have to worry about it.”