One night during UCDC, Cyn Gomez (they/he) and their friends decided what to do with their free night: stay in. It’s all they could afford.
A semester at the UC Washington Center, or UCDC, was something Gomez had always wanted to experience, especially after protesting in Washington, D.C. for gun control, which changed their perspective on what they wanted to do with their life.
Gomez had great experiences at UCDC. But as a first-generation student with financial need, they also struggled to make ends meet. So, on top of their unpaid internship, they got a job, which took a significant toll on their free time and mental health.
“I had to weigh out any activity we were doing,” Gomez said. “‘Can I afford to make this cost, can I afford to use my time this way? Do homework, grading, prepare for the week? Am I going to feel ostracized in this place if I can’t show up and contribute in the same way my peers do?’ Those are hard conversations to have with yourself.”
Financing UCDC: Students raise food pantry concerns
In order to finance UCDC, students can have their financial aid repackaged to cover a semester in Washington, apply for scholarships, save money from work or obtain a paid internship.
Mary Crabb, the UCDC program advisor for UC Berkeley, noted that the cost of UCDC is higher than a regular campus semester when considering the cost of transportation, winter clothes and a professional wardrobe for an internship.
Crabb noted that it is a “risk” when students don’t know whether they will obtain a paid internship or not, as UCDC is not an internship placing program. Instead, it assists participants in their search for an internship.
“There’s still a disparity between paid and unpaid internships, there being more unpaid positions,” Crabb said. “There’s a lot of pushback against this because it’s recognized as an equity issue.”
While attending UCDC, students stay in the UC Washington Center, where there is a basic needs pantry stocked with staple goods, fresh produce and hygiene products, according to Crabb. However, both Gomez and Devyn Lopez, who attended UCDC last spring semester, found it to be inadequate.
Lopez noted that the pantry was overstocked with things like cookie dough, sugar packets and canned foods that weren’t healthy. In addition, neither Gomez nor Lopez knew that EBT benefits could carry over to the Washington area.
“I think that took a toll on me as well, grocery shopping and starting from scratch since we lived in an apartment,” Lopez said. “Had I known that, I would have applied and made sure to use CalFresh over there. I just don’t think that was made clear to me from the beginning.”
It was when they needed the food pantry the most that it became visible how little it offered, exposing a “glaring” financial gap between Gomez and his peers.
Gomez noted that UCDC allegedly shed responsibility by passing out flyers advertising community resources, which turned out to be far away at reduced capacity or nonexistent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were a lot of people who were like, ‘This isn’t necessarily our fight, we have the pantry, why are you upset?’ ” Gomez said. “ ‘There’s other resources, you should have gotten an internship that pays.’ There were a lot of other rebuttals that came up during that time that were disheartening to see coming from other students in the program.”
Speaking with a financial advisor, Lopez was able to figure out her options before going to Washington, making it a more viable plan. Without the financial aid she received, Lopez believes she wouldn’t have participated in UCDC.
Crabb recommends that students reach out to a financial advisor in order to come up with a plan catered to each individual. In an email, she said that spring 2022 was the first semester that the food pantry at the UC Washington Center was available to students.
She also said she tells students during their orientation to check with the Basic Needs Center on campus before leaving for Washington to learn about their EBT or CalFresh benefits in Washington.
Crabb added that she estimates more than half of students attending UCDC have financial aid. Her advice for students who have financial concerns is to come talk to her and to get in touch with the financial aid department.
But even with financial aid, Gomez was still left in a financial deficit when they returned to Berkeley.
“DC has a very, very special place in my heart,” Gomez said. “Whenever I have the opportunity to go, DC has always welcomed me with open arms. I think I wouldn’t go back if I was in the same financial situation that I was then.”
‘Burdensome costs’: Cal in the Capital needs more support
For those who want to work in Washington for the summer, campus offers Cal in the Capital, or CITC, a student-run program in the public service center, according to Emily Adsit, the program manager for public service internships.
Marisol Medina, a second-year undergraduate who attended CITC over the summer, applied despite being fearful of the cost, with the hopes of receiving a scholarship and saving up enough money to attend CITC.
“Unfortunately, my internship was not paid,” Medina said in an email. “It was my goal to land a paid internship, however, I was presented with the opportunity to intern at the U.S. Department of Education which was something I could not pass up on given that education equity is an issue I am very passionate about.”
Even a small stipend, according to Medina, would make a difference in bridging the gap for students who don’t have the financial resources to work an unpaid internship.
She hopes that more financial support will allow for more diversity in government, and for the expansion of access to programs like Cal in the Capitol and UCDC.
“I think Cal in the Capital is not as accessible as I wish it was due to the burdensome costs,” Medina said in an email. “Given my background, this opportunity was very surreal and one I am extremely grateful for. I wish more underrepresented first-generation, low-income students felt sufficiently supported to take on these experiences.”
Adsit expressed similar sentiments, saying she wants Cal in the Capital to be accessible to everyone, regardless of financial status. Although the cost of housing can seem “prohibitive” upfront, she noted that CITC tries to send financial aid and fundraise throughout the year to help offset the cost. In an email, campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff also said that CITC is unable to provide full financial support beyond the small need-based scholarships for housing costs.
Including food, housing, travel and personal expenses, Adsit recommends students save about $6,000.
Cost of living adjustments
No two study abroad programs — whether that be University of California Education Abroad Program, or UCEAP, Global Edge, Berkeley Summer Abroad or an independent program — are the same. Neither are the financial packages.
For Jordan Murphy (she/they), a study abroad peer advisor who spent two semesters abroad, her experiences differed greatly depending on the cost of housing and food options.
Last fall semester, she studied in Paris, where the cost of housing was comparable to Berkeley’s, whereas in Greece it was lower. Under their Paris program, Murphy’s financial aid was repackaged, she received scholarships and her total expenditures ended up on the lower end of the estimated cost. However, that doesn’t take into account the extra traveling one may do while abroad.
“They’re kind of the lowest end of what you might spend if you really do budget with food and don’t do extra travel at all, and that’s not really the kind of experience that most people have,” Murphy said. “Most people do want to eat out sometimes and want to visit a couple places nearby while they’re there.”
For Ava Tung, who is studying in Taipei and Taiwan next semester, funding for study abroad also comes from a 529 plan her parents had for their education.
Though Tung agreed the cost ranges from place to place, she said UCEAP overall is “pretty expensive.”
“It’s not … super accessible,” Tung said. “I know there are programs that are a little less expensive and more independent, but those are harder to get approved with the school.”
In an email, Ratliff noted that the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office offers financial aid for study abroad programs including Global Edge, Berkeley Summer Abroad and the Global Internship program.
However, he added that international students are ineligible for federal, state and need-based university financial aid.
“If you don’t have the flexibility to know there might be extra expenses and you might not have the most support with finding affordable food options, it might not be a good idea to go on the program,” Murphy said.