Students studying abroad encounter problems, delays with financial aid

Rebecca Tauber

When Caroline Fairweather ’20 arrived at her study abroad program for spring semester last year, she had approximately fifty dollars in her checking account. Her program began on Jan. 2, a day before Winter Study started, and when she landed in London she had not yet received her financial aid money.

The College divides study away financial aid into two categories: direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include tuition and other program costs, whereas indirect costs include expenses like laundry and food if a program does not have a meal plan. For students on financial aid, the College pays the study away programs themselves for the direct costs and refunds the indirect cost money to students for them to spend on a day-to-day basis while abroad. 

Fairweather experienced a weeks-long delay in receiving funds, resolved only after her mother got involved.

Students calculate these indirect costs themselves and get them reviewed and approved by the office of financial aid. Levels of college aid and family contribution to study away budgets are calculated based on individual student profiles. Throughout this process, the College encourages students to meet with the office of financial aid, which sends students reminders and checklists in the weeks leading up to their departure and works to anticipate any problems students might have.

While Fairweather’s direct costs had been paid, she had not yet received her indirect funds when her program started. “That might not be an issue for someone who has literally any savings, but since I do a work study job and I hold up a third of the amount of money that I have to pay for my family, all the money that I get from work study goes right back to the College,” Fairweather said. “So, I pretty much have no savings and so I wasn’t prepared.”

In a program without an included meal plan, Fairweather needed funds for food and other living costs immediately when she arrived. “The only reason that I was able to get food is because my boyfriend, Jack Romans [’20], was also abroad with me on the same program,” she said. “He’s not on financial aid and he had more savings than I did, so he fronted a lot of the costs for me.”

Fairweather emailed the financial aid office when she arrived and expected a delay of a few days; instead, she did not receive her funds until a few weeks later. “I was weeks on end just getting like 25 or 50 dollars at a time from my parents,” she said.

For Fairweather, this delay was caused by a variety of problems that came up after she arrived in London and tried to get her financial aid. She learned that she had an outstanding balance from her parental contribution in the fall, so she could not receive more money until that was paid. She also found out that, according to a federal rule, because her financial aid consists of loans, her funds could not be dispersed until ten days before spring classes at the College began. For Fairweather, this was weeks after her program began, since she arrived the first week of January right before Winter Study.

After a few weeks of exchanging emails without much progress, Fairweather’s mother contacted the office of financial aid. “Nothing started being solved until my mom emailed,” Fairweather said. “I think that people in the financial aid office assumed that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I think they assumed that I had missed something, I hadn’t filled out some form, I hadn’t read something on a website.”

Only after her mother’s email did Fairweather learn about all the various problems with the loans and outstanding balance. She also learned that the College had accidentally overpaid the direct costs of her program and that money would be coming back to her. Her mother heard a response within hours, and the office expedited Fairweather’s refund a few days later.

Director of Financial Aid Ashley Bianchi explained the steps the office takes to anticipate many of the problems students might face when studying away on financial aid. “They start preparing six to eight months in advance to study away,” she said. “I feel like sometimes students feel Williams is oftentimes almost a safety net following them around to make sure that they remember these things, and when they go to another country, Williams doesn’t go along with them.”

Bianchi estimated that this year, out of approximately 100 students whom the office worked with regarding study away, only two had issues with their funds. When beginning the process to study away, students are advised to meet with Ann Lundhild, associate director of financial aid, who works specifically with study away students to plan costs and address potential issues. 

“Obviously I can’t force people into my office, so some don’t come visit me, they don’t know the deadlines.… we try our very best to publicize them,” Lundhild said. She also noted that she tells students with programs that start in early January ahead of time to email the office requesting an early refund before the College closes during winter break. When students complete this request, she said, they can receive a cash advance to get funds early. “The last thing I want is somebody getting to their program and not having any money,” she said.

Bianchi explained how the financial aid office only closes for two weeks a year, or eight business days, right before and after Christmas. “During that time the office has someone monitoring both the phones and the email,” she said. Bianchi also noted that the office sends reminders to students who are leaving for study abroad early that the office will be closed and to request refunds before then.

She also mentioned other processes in place for students to receive expedited or up front funds in extenuating circumstances. “We allow students to charge their flights ahead of time, we pay for their visa costs up front, so we’re doing all of that in a way to try to minimize the barriers for students all across the socio-economic spectrum for studying away,” she said. “We are very proactive in trying to think through what are the costs that a typical student.”

Bianchi and Lundhild claimed that students who faced last minute issues often either did not anticipate the government regulation that loan funds cannot be dispersed until ten days before the start of the semester, did not realize part of their funds came from their parental contribution or did not anticipate their travel plans more generally. “We try our very best to set up well ahead of deadlines.… meetings, checklist, cost estimates,” Bianchi said.

Kester Messan-Hilla ’21, who is spending the year in Italy, did not face issues with his study abroad financial aid, and emphasized the importance of staying in touch with College offices. “I made sure to keep [in]  good communication with the abroad office and the financial aid office,” he said. “I don’t understand how it all works, so I made sure to clarify as much as I could before I left campus. I didn’t have any issues getting the money that was promised to me. Most issues involved communicating while abroad.”

However, some students who did have problems with financial aid while abroad noted that they did meet and communicate with the office before leaving. Despite her meeting, Fairweather said that she still did not know about the issues with her outstanding balance and the federal loan rule in advance, nor did she know about the advance reimbursement process. “Up until I got to London, I did not know any of this would be a problem,” Fairweather said.

Majda Murati ’21, who is currently studying abroad in Germany, experienced problems with her direct funds once she arrived, despite meeting with the office of financial aid multiple times. “I kept being told, on Jan. 3, I will request a refund and then by the time I get to my program, which was Jan. 14, I will have that money for my study abroad,” Murati said. Since the College was paying her tuition directly to the program, she only expected to see a few thousand dollars available for a refund in her account for her indirect costs.

Instead, when she checked her account, she saw $26,000 available on her account. Murati realized that meant the tuition costs were in her account, instead of given directly to the program. “I knew that wasn’t right,” she said. While Murati could have gotten the refund, she did not feel like she could withdraw the money, since she was unsure how much needed to go to the program versus how much was supposed to go to her for indirect costs. Meanwhile, she also worried about her program not receiving her tuition by the start date.

Murati, who is currently studying abroad in Germany, experienced trouble with her program tuition.

When Murati saw the mix-up with the funds at the beginning of the month, she emailed the College right away. Her program began in mid-January, and she did not receive a confirmation that a check was mailed to her program and a partial refund was given for her indirect costs until the end of January.

As a result, Murati paid for her own expenses the first few weeks at her program. “The first couple of weeks abroad is where you spend so much money,” she said. “I think I have, in the past two weeks, taken out 500 euros out of my personal funds. And I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but to someone who is low income, that is a lot of money that I was not anticipating having to spend by myself.” 

Although she met with the office of financial aid multiple times, Alexa Walkovitz ’21 also had problems with her financial aid money when she arrived in London this January. “The only thing that was paid for was my flight there — I assumed my accommodation and tuition fees would have been paid, but when I arrived at my accommodation, they informed me the office of financial aid … had not replied to their emails asking for the payment,” she said. 

“I had been sitting in the accommodation office for hours with my bags, thinking I might be stranded,” Walkovitz continued. “I had never been to London and knew absolutely nobody.… I didn’t have parents to fall back on, and I barely had any money.”

Walkovitz struggled to navigate the College administrative systems, given the multiple offices involved. “Both my mother and I had to send innumerable emails to many different offices — deans, student accounts, financial aid — and all sent us through bureaucracy to figure out what had gone wrong,” Walkovitz said. Ultimately, Walkovitz learned she had to send her invoice to the office of student accounts. She then received 200 dollars of emergency funding and got her accommodation paid for. 

Like Fairweather, Walkovitz also did not know about the federal loan processing rule, nor that she had to send her invoice to the office of student accounts. “Maybe I missed the information,” she said. “With all my searching and clicking on websites and pages for Williams’s financial aid, I feel like if I can’t find it, nobody can.”

Murati, Fairweather and Walkovitz all related struggling to juggle the various offices and administrative processes involved. Both Murati and Fairweather did not have international calling plans, so they could not call the offices directly. “Williams doesn’t have a WhatsApp, and I don’t have international calling, so that is also a big factor,” Murati said when she was still attempting to resolve her issues. 

Fairweather relied on family in the United States to call College offices. “There were a few times actually where I had to FaceTime my mom and she was on the home phone, and I just had to talk through FaceTime,” she said. All three students also expressed frustration with communicating with College offices via email.

Bianchi explained that the office of financial aid is in the process of restructuring for a quicker, more streamlined response to student issues. “We all get lots and lots of emails and you know that there are a list of priorities in there and if someone’s in crisis, that’s going to pop to the top,” she said. “Our policy in general is a 24-hour turnaround for email, and we typically meet that.”

“It’s always a work in progress with email,” Lundhild added. “Are there some that probably haven’t gotten answered in that 24-hour window? I’m sure there are, but we do our very best to get them all answered in a timely fashion.”

In an effort to more effectively respond to students, the office is moving away from a system where different financial aid officers specialize in certain areas, such as study away. “Our office in general … is moving towards all of us being more generalist … that’s sort of one of the things that we’ve identified as something we can be better at,” Bianchi explained. 

When recounting her first month abroad, Fairweather noted how many opportunities she has had as a student on financial aid at the College more generally. “There have been times where I feel like the luckiest person. The book grant has always worked perfectly, and that’s something that’s so unique to Williams,” she said. “But moments like this feel like if you’re on financial aid you’re hung out to dry.… I guess it’s that you’re under the impression that you’re going to be taken care of, you can go abroad, this isn’t something limited to students who aren’t on financial aid, when you’re at Williams we will support you. And that just totally did not happen.”