Ohio Northern University students near Seoul, South Korea.

For some, a $145 investment in their potential could literally mean the world. That’s what Ohio Northern University is counting on for 25 first-year students who will receive scholarships this coming academic year to apply towards their U.S. passport application process for study-abroad experiences.

A grant of $3,625 was awarded to ONU by the Institute of International Education, Inc.’s American Passport Program, which facilitates the first step toward international learning for first-year, Pell Grant-eligible students: obtaining a passport. Through the IIE American Passport Project, IIE plans to have enabled 10,000 students to have passports by the end of the decade. In this first year, IIE received nearly 200 applications proposing the various ways higher education institutions of all types and locations would be able to utilize the grant to support diverse student populations.

The IIE American Passport Program focuses on promoting equity by encouraging and supporting diverse populations to study abroad. In addition to demonstrated financial need, students who are racial/ethnic minorities, military veterans, of non-traditional age, first generation college attendees, gender diverse, and those who have never traveled abroad will be prioritized for passport scholarships at ONU.

Enhancing this funding will be supplemental resources and advising regarding study-abroad opportunities and financing methods so that students will get the most mileage out of their scholarship. U.S. passports are generally valid for 10 years, which means first-year students will have, at minimum, their entire college careers to use their passport. ONU staff in the Office of Global Initiatives will help passport scholarship recipients navigate the planning and logistics it takes to make such life-altering adventures possible. Perhaps most importantly, staff will, as always, provide encouragement to eligible students to go abroad who otherwise may think study-abroad isn’t for them.

International Services Advisor Christopher Caldwell, who was instrumental in helping ONU secure this program funding, said he was so excited when he heard the news about receiving the grant that he danced down the hallway and “told anyone who would listen.” That’s because Caldwell knows first-hand the value of funding like this. As a first-generation, low-income student of color during his own college years, he leveraged a full academic and leadership scholarship to pursue a career in academia that prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Part of the reason I tapped into DEI education was because I see the value of advocating for individuals who don’t have the opportunities or who don’t think they have opportunities because people don’t take the time to advocate,” says Caldwell.

“If you put that passport into a student’s hands, suddenly a door opens,” Caldwell says. “Maybe not fully. Maybe just a crack. And, maybe it’s that you’ve turned the key but not fully unlocked the door.” Yet, the mere possibility of opportunities that stretch beyond borders can be enough of a nudge for students to start viewing their socioeconomic status differently, in less limiting ways, he says.

“It’s about finding those students who are thinking, ‘OK, I can’t go to Japan because it’ll cost too much. I get it. But herein lies the rub: you can. You absolutely can,” Caldwell insists.

Caldwell notes his own full-ride scholarship did not cover his study-abroad experience in South Africa. He worked to earn the money.

Various ONU departments regularly help students find ways to earn funds, ranging from employment to internships to crowdfunding, to pursue their academic dreams. Global Initiatives Director Jeffrey Smith notes that Ohio Northern “offers some more inexpensive options and several other study abroad grants, scholarships, and incentives as well. One competitive option, for instance, allows a student to spend a summer in South Korea basically fully funded. Cost $0.00!”

“The reality is that there are some very inexpensive options for education abroad,” Smith says.

Smith acknowledges the application processes can be quite rigorous, but emphasized that ONU offers and promotes usually competitive and merit-based opportunities, through means such as scholarships and fellowships, that allow passport scholarship recipients realistic and reachable opportunities to use their passport for an engaging, high-impact international opportunity.

Caldwell says his first trip abroad offered him learning experiences that he could not have received in the classroom.

“I’m 35 now and I’m still unpacking what I learned there,” says Caldwell. “Even at this point, I know that there’s still more stuff that there is for me to know.” The benefits derived from studying abroad experiences are invaluable and limitless, he says.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on traveling abroad, international study programs are resuming. Caldwell points out that there are benefits to the delays: those who’d like to travel to places that are still off limits will have more time to budget and save to finance their trip.

Thanks in part to partner institutions and organizations, Ohio Northern offers numerous study-abroad opportunities throughout the world for students from all academic disciplines.

While study abroad options have been limited by the pandemic, partner institutions and programs continue to offer the chance for ONU students to study abroad in countries such as South Korea, Japan and France. Caldwell expects that additional semester, academic year and short-term programs in a range of countries on six continents will restart within the next year or two as vaccines become more widely available.

More recently, ONU has been planning for more faculty and staff-led study abroad options. Past trips have been taken to places such as Costa Rica, Peru and Germany. Professors and staff members are planning for extraordinary learning experiences in other parts of the world too. Caldwell, for instance, is hoping to lead a trip to Japan in summer 2022 in collaboration with a partner institution.

Caldwell hopes eligible passport scholarship recipients don’t consider the funding a handout or unearned benefit. It will, in fact, come with high expectations.

“This is not a charity sort of situation. This is an advocacy situation. There’s a distinction between giving somebody something and expecting nothing versus giving somebody something and expecting everything,” says Caldwell.

He continues, “When a student accepts this passport program scholarship from ONU, we are expecting them to go to a place that they otherwise would never have been able to go, see things that they otherwise never would have been able to see and enrich themselves and the others that go on the trip with them. We expect them to come back and enrich the campus with their experiences and the discussions that they have... We expect them to live a life that is further enriched by their studies and by their experiences.”