With the COVID-19 pandemic creating uncertainty over the last year, Jennifer Long felt mentally and emotionally unprepared for college.
Seeking other options, she was referred to Verto Education, a program founded to increase access to international exchange. Designed to be a “gap year without a gap,” first-year students can spend a semester or year abroad while earning 12-16 college credits.
“When you look historically at the students who have had not only access to but the opportunity to engage in deep cultural immersion internationally, it hasn’t been to a diverse group of students,” said Michael Kabbaz, senior vice president of strategy and chief of staff at Verto.
The demographics of students in the United States who studied abroad during the 2018-2019 school year were 68.7% White, 6.4% Black, 8.9% Asian and 10.9% Hispanic, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Verto’s program costs range from $15,000 to $25,000 per semester. However, to address existing financial barriers, scholarships and financial aid options are offered. The Opportunity Grant, for example, gives $5,000 or $10,000 grants for families with a household income between $0 and $125,000.
Additionally, students who’ve completed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form can use federal government loans and grants to cover program costs.
“We talk a lot in higher ed about leveling the playing field,” said Kabbaz. “But Verto is really founded to level the playing field for students to have these high impact international deep cultural experiences. If people had more exposure to cultures, we would be doing a lot more bridge building than wall building. I think that’s the foundation in which we approach our work.”
However, barriers go beyond cost. In many cases, students are not made aware of available international exchange options.
“Many families don’t know where to start with how to set an experience like that up,” said Henry Broaddus, vice president for strategic initiatives and public affairs at the College of William & Mary. “Verto can be a turnkey solution for expanding access to more than just the private school set. And that’s the combination of their opportunity grants so that they’re making these kinds of experiences more affordable. But also, the ease of setting it up.”
Students can choose from six locations including London, England; Madrid, Spain; Milan, Italy; South Pacific; Costa Rica and the Hawaiian Islands. However, due to the pandemic, the locations have been reduced to four. Of the 146 students currently enrolled in programs, 30% are Pell-eligible and 30% are students of color, according to Kabbaz.
Depending on the area, students will complete either a campus or field semester. A campus semester offers more of the “traditional” study abroad experience with courses taken on a local college campus. On the other hand, a field semester involves more cultural immersion and community engagement.
Inspired by her great uncle, Long chose to study in the Hawaiian Islands. Currently, she’s enrolled in environmental science, anthropology and sociology courses.
Over the last several months, Long has pushed herself to participate in every available excursion which has involved hiking and swimming with Manta rays. To her, a standout day involved planting coffee at a local farm and learning Hula.
Long makes a conscious effort and encourages others to not enter a study abroad environment with a “savior complex.”
“I think it’s very important to know that you are not here to save people, you are not here to aid,” she added. “You are here to learn and be an active participant in your environment. I think it’s really important to not make this a mission trip when you come into it. I just come in with a very open mind.”
To remain on track for graduation, students are enrolled through the Richard Bland College of William & Mary. From there, credits are transferrable to over 50 partner schools around the country.
After finishing the semester, Long plans to work towards finishing a degree in environmental science at Georgia State University.
As one of the partner schools, the College of William & Mary—who holds the highest study abroad participation rate among public schools within the U.S.—offered waitlisted students the chance to participate in the program.
“I think that often, these kinds of gap semester or gap year experiences give students an opportunity to be thoughtful and reflective about what they want out of their college experience,” said Broaddus. “There are ample institutions that have shown students who take one of those gap experiences perform very well. It can contribute to their success at college.”
Beyond their existing partner schools, Verto Education recently announced a collaboration effort with the College of the Siskiyous. Under this partnership, California residents who need financial assistance are eligible to receive a reduced rate for the abroad programs. Credits earned during the semester or year can then be transferred to a California State University or University of California school.
“We’ve created a transformative first-year experience that will set students up for success throughout their academic career,” said Dr. Char Perlas, acting superintendent and president of College of the Siskiyous. “We are thrilled to provide first-time college students with a new route to college completion that builds off our commitment to transform lives and offers an enriching cultural and global experience that is affordable and will support their personal development and growth.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.