The benefits of study-abroad programs are well known – foreign language skills, career opportunities, cultural competency, a greater likelihood of attending college, and greater self-confidence can all be gained simply by spending a year or less living and going to school in a foreign country.
For most low-income students in St. Louis, however, study abroad remains an inaccessible dream, and those opportunities that can be gained by learning and living in a foreign country remain just faraway ideas instead of tangible possibilities.
The recently established Quest Scholarship Fund at the St. Louis Community Foundation aims to change that. The fund will subsidize 50 percent of the expenses for high-achieving low-income students to travel abroad, while the AFS-USA Faces of America Program will provide the other 50 percent. The Faces of America program, established in 1995, works to make study abroad accessible for low-income students of color from urban centers across the United States, though until this year the St. Louis area had remained uninvolved.
“No one in St. Louis has ever gone after this money before,” said Suzanne Sebert, co- founder of the Quest Fund. “This is too good to waste.”
The first Quest Scholar to go through this program in the St. Louis area is Cheyenne Hawkins, a junior at University City High School, who will be studying abroad this summer in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. This week, she was contacted for the first time by her host family.
“My counselor called me down to her office, and she told me about the program and how she needed someone to be nominated and she thought of me when they told her about it,” Hawkins said.
It’s easy to see why Hawkins’ counselor saw that she would be a good fit for this program. The list of ways she is involved in her community is overwhelming.
“I’m in a Delta Youth Program, the GEMS, there’s the UMSL Bridge program, National Society of Black Engineers, National Honors Society, National Society of High School Scholars, Student Council, varsity soccer, Girl Scouts… I lose count sometimes,” she and her mother, Gina Stokes, laughed.
Later, her mother added that Hawkins is on her high school robotics competition team, involved in a mentoring program, and also maintains a 4.0 GPA, among other things.
“I keep her busy,” Stokes said.
“Most definitely. I don’t have that much free time!” Hawkins said.
She credits her ability to keep up with this dizzying array of activities to her time-management and calendar skills, which she got from her mother. Stokes, for her part, is confident that her daughter will be able to handle anything that study abroad throws at her.
“If she can juggle everything she does and still maintain a 4.0, she’ll be able to handle it,” Stokes said.
Hawkins, is excited about all parts of this new intercultural experience. “Going down there, period. It’s exciting,” she said.
While in Asuncion, she will live with a Paraguayan host family, and take four hours of Spanish class daily. “I want to see how my host family lives,” she said. “And the food. I’m excited about the food. I assume it’ll be a lot of beans.”
The Quest Scholarship Fund, which is sending Hawkins abroad, is a relatively recent creation -- it was only started on January 20. Since then, the fund organizers have been able to fund Hawkins’ trip started the application process for another student, who attends Parkway South High School as part of the Voluntary Transfer Program. Although applications are closed for this year, next year the fund hopes to send at least 10 high-achieving, low-income students from selected St. Louis high schools to study abroad.
“That means raising at least $50,000 … but we’re on our way!” Sebert said.
Sebert believes strongly in the power of study-abroad programs to change the world.
She studied abroad as a teen and wanted to make that experience available to others. “It’s a challenging time in the world, so it’s very important that we all reach out to each other,” she said.
So the fund was created for that purpose: to help people reach out to each other beyond their normal geographic spheres.
“A lot of students from St. Louis that are just not interested [in study abroad] or their parents have scared them half to death,” said Stokes. Many students don’t even consider study abroad as a reasonable possibility, but Hawkins would urge them to consider it.
“Definitely do it,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just make sure you do research on where you’re going.”
Hawkins plans to continue studying abroad during college, where she plans to study chemical engineering. When asked where she wants to travel next, she replied, “Everywhere.”
To donate to the Quest Fund, checks can be made payable to “St. Louis Community Foundation, Inc.” with “Quest Scholarship Fund” in the memo line, or online at www.stlgives.org under the “Give Today” tab. The Quest Fund will also be holding a fundraising golf tournament at Tavern Creek at St. Albans on June 8. Registration is open on the website.
Sophie Hurwitz is a St. Louis American editorial intern from John Burroughs School.