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Risky Business: study abroad and the office of financial aid

students who studied abroad in italy this past summer are looking for answers concerning their late financial aid dis- bursements.

The town of Salerno, Italy, is known for its proxim- ity to the Amalfi Coast, not for housing destitute under- grads, but that is exactly the situation a handful of Ole Miss students found themselves in this summer while studying abroad.

“I had no money in a foreign country,” finance soph- omore Kristin Leaptrott said. “It was a really stressful ex- perience.”

From the end of May to the end of June, 18 Ole Miss students from a variety of majors and different financial backgrounds were in Italy to perfect their language skills and experience another culture. At least five of these students were relying on loans and financial aid to pay for their trip money that was two weeks late showing up in their bank accounts.

“It was really terrifying because I was borrowing money from my friends,” classics senior Alex Kitson said.

“Our teacher had offered for anybody to borrow money if they needed to. I was relying on loans so I couldn’t just call my parents and be like, ‘Hey, I need a couple thousand dollars,’ because my parents don’t have a couple thousand dollars lying around.

According to Kitson, who was the last in her group to receive financial aid, students had been told they would receive their money the day after they arrived for the program.

“When I left the United States, I had no money be- cause I knew that this money was coming in,” Kitson said. “Then it didn’t come in, and it kept not coming in for two- and-a-half weeks out of a four-week program.”
Not everyone was as reliant on financial aid as Kitson, but even those with a few bucks to their name found them- selves in a precarious monetary situation.

“I was a lot luckier than some of the other people be- cause I had saved up some money, but I had also just gotten back from a vacation, so I didn’t have a lot of money,” Leaptrott said. “I had enough to buy a small lunch every day, so I wasn’t going without food. Other people came with literally no money and were depending on that money to survive. It was really bad.”

Brad Noel, the study abroad advisor for Italy, said the main cause of this financial aid issue was communication errors. The program was scheduled as a May intersession term, but the dates coincided with the first summer term.

The students who did not receive their money had marked first summer term on their applications.

“What happened behind the scenes in the financial aid office is that whenever they process summer financial aid applications, if the student says they are taking a class in a term, they look online, and if they are not registered for a class in that term, they don’t process the application,” Noel said.

Noel said he had assigned the program to the May intersession term so that students would get their financial aid dispersement earlier.

“That sort of backfired be- cause students were late get- ting their aid, instead of get- ting their aid early,” Noel said. “I take blame for assigning it as a May session as opposed to a first summer session.”

Both Leaptrott and Kitson said they were told by Noel to sign up for the first summer session, but when they emailed the financial aid office, they were blamed for messing up their paperwork.

“They emailed us back, and said, ‘We’re sorry. You put the wrong session on your application, so we’re having to go back and rework all of it,’” Leaptrott said. “They blamed it on us.”

Before leaving for Italy, Kitson said almost every time she tried to get information from the study abroad office, she was sent to the Office of Financial Aid. Often, financial aid wouldn’t know the answer, and the advisor would call the study abroad office, and someone responded with the information immediately.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” Kitson said. “Nobody was keeping track of what people were doing. It was very unorganized.”

This is not unusual, according to Hunter Richardson, the study abroad financial aid advisor.

“With a lot of these different programs that the study abroad office has to deal with, they are juggling a lot of balls at once, and they are trying to make it work, trying to make it happen,” Richardson said. “A lot of these things are out of our control or out of the study abroad office’s control. It gets done at the last minute or even after the fact. A lot of things have to match up just right for all of this to pay out.”

But according to the financial aid office, this is mainly a summer problem.

“It does seem to happen primarily in the summer be- cause of the volume of people going through study abroad,” Laura Diven-Brown, director of the financial aid office, said. “Because of all the various terms in the summer and the need to communicate with us about what terms you are attending, that does make it a different animal.”

Those interested in studying abroad are recommended to meet with Richardson before departure to go over their monetary options.

“We can sit down and crunch the numbers and re- ally look at each student’s individual financial aid package one-on-one,” Richardson said. “We can compare it with what it’s going to cost to go on this trip for study abroad, and then we can semi-try to predict what their refund is going to look like. Then they can know, budget for themselves and talk to their fami- lies if this trip is something they can afford to do.”

Diven-Brown also advises caution.

“This can be the experience of a lifetime for folks,” she said. “But you just have to do your homework on it first.”