A whole new world

The McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives at Mount Holyoke has received a grant to support first-generation and low-income students in obtaining their U.S. passports.

It’s spring in Paris. The weather is mild, trees and flowers are blooming and the city is bustling with locals and tourists alike. Erin Foley ’23 is headed to see the Eiffel Tower with a new group of friends who are rather special to her. It’s her first time abroad, and she, along with her friends — all first-generation college students — are doing something they never imagined they’d be able to do: studying abroad.

“There were 10 of us, trekking to the Eiffel Tower late at night, and when we finally got there, we watched it light up and sparkle. It was beautiful,” she said. “The fact that we were all first gens from different colleges getting to experience this moment together was so affirming. It still fills me with pride to know we were able to make this opportunity happen for ourselves.”

It’s that experience that led the politics and anthropology graduate to spend her final semester working at the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives to help low-income and first-generation students at the College experience the same joy and fulfillment she had when studying abroad.

In her first few weeks at the center, she expressed her intentions to April Stroud, associate director at the McCulloch Center and director of study abroad. Foley shared the struggles she experienced in obtaining a U.S. passport as an adult — trying to fill out the confusing forms, ensuring a suitable photo and paying with a check because the Department of State doesn’t accept credit or debit cards. Her challenges gave her a unique perspective on what often prevents other students from applying for their passports as young adults, let alone studying abroad.

Since November 2023, 25 first- and second-year students at Mount Holyoke have had their passport expenses covered. Most students who received this opportunity plan to study abroad during their time at Mount Holyoke. In addition to providing financial assistance and workshop support to obtain passports, Stroud and her team have been intentional about helping students understand other grants they might qualify for to aid in the cost of studying abroad.

Aware of the challenges students face when trying to get a passport, Stroud submitted a grant proposal to the Institute of International Education — an organization that believes education transcends borders and works to provide learning opportunities abroad to high school and college-aged students — seeking funding to cover passports for up to 25 Pell Grant–eligible first- and second-year students.

“The College’s new president, Danielle Holley, is focused on admitting and accepting students with limited means and resources, and this grant seemed like a perfect opportunity,” Stroud said. “We want to make study abroad for all students more accessible, and submitting this proposal felt aligned with our institution’s goals.”

Once awarded the grant, Stroud, Foley and other McCulloch Center staff got to work emailing eligible students to see if they’d be interested in applying for a passport. They hosted informational workshops, outlined the process and did their best to alleviate students’ fears about the time and fees associated with the process.

“I remember [the passport application] was a pain to fill out. There was one morning where I was sitting on my couch, and I had to redo it three times because I kept messing up a section I couldn’t understand!” Foley said. “I’m sitting there getting frustrated. My mom is trying to help, but it’s not like she’s done this before either. Then I realized I had to get my passport photo, and I didn’t know where I could go to do that. Eventually, I got it done, but it was this weird process where I felt like I did all that I could and still worried I’d hear that I’d done something wrong.”

Stroud also looked to other institutions that received the same funding to understand the challenges students were experiencing. She discovered just how difficult it had been for students at other institutions to get checks or money orders on their own, so she worked with Student Financial Services and Accounts Payable to see the possibility of issuing checks directly to the government, instead of disbursing funds to students’ accounts. “If a student has a balance on their account, dispersing the grant that way would cover the balance instead of covering their passport costs,” Stroud said. “There’s also the reality that most students in 2024 don’t have access to checks, nor do they know how to write one. So we had to get creative about how to get around that.”

Together, the departments ensured that all students would get checks written on their behalf from the school so they’d have one less thing to worry about. Additionally, the McCulloch Center hosted workshops throughout the winter so students could fill out their forms together with the help of MHC staff.

“This is my first passport, and it’s a really big deal. Now it’s not just an idea or thought. It puts me in a position to actually go abroad,” said Boston native Gabby Gedeon ’26. “The fact that the school was willing to take part in a program like this and create clear, hands-on support for us was great. Everyone at the center was so supportive and patient with me. I’m so appreciative of it.”

The center has seen such positive results from this opportunity that they’re already considering how they can support students in the future, either through similar grant opportunities or by using their own resources to support students in their travel abroad endeavors.

“As someone who comes from a low-income background, I always assumed I’d never be able to go abroad without saving a significant amount of money,” said film studies major Lex Canon ’26, who is originally from Phoenix. “To have these funds willingly given to me is a wonderful first step in getting to go abroad. Now I’m considering a film opportunity in Rome and have an understanding of additional scholarship funds I’m eligible for to make it happen because of how helpful April made this process for me. I would not have been able to do this without the McCulloch Center’s support.”

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