FLI-ing Abroad

When you travel abroad, nothing can prepare you for all the surprises you’ll face: phonemes of languages previously unheard, foods never before tasted, unfamiliar histories and traditions, and jet lag so severe that you’ll be dozing off at noon but wide awake at 5 am. You feel like a fish not only “out of water” but on a different shore entirely.

Of course, this feeling is not new. For FLI students, such as myself, the disorienting feeling of being launched into a novel world is more or less par for the course. FLI is an acronym which stands for “First-generation, Low Income,” and the moniker encompasses a broad spectrum of unique identities. Growing up, before even learning the term, my FLI identity was characterized by food insecurity, hard conversations about making ends meet, summer jobs (sometimes several at a time), financial aid applications, and an underlying sense that college might not be something meant for me. Now at MIT as only the second person in my family to work toward a college degree, I have been welcomed by a fantastic community of FLI students on campus.

I have found solidarity in the title and have learned to wear “FLI” as a badge of honor.

It is this identity which inspires me to seek opportunities I never before dreamed possible. This summer, I was fortunate to travel to Germany to carry out research through MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program. In many respects, travel has been an illuminating experience. Though lately, I’ve found myself struggling to make sense of my FLI identity outside MIT and in the broader scope of the globe. The question I find myself asking the most has been – If I have the support of my employers and travel coordinators, why do I still feel uneasy?

For one, I have really never traveled abroad before. As a child, summer vacation meant a break from classes to help my mom around the house and, once I was old enough, to work summer jobs myself. Having surplus money and enough time off work to travel internationally was unfathomable at the time.

Consequently, being FLI abroad introduced two shocks: cultural and financial. First arriving in Germany, I felt that there were hidden rules seemingly understood by everyone except me. I learned the hard way–tricks for tackling jet lag, the importance of closely monitoring your bank account for unknown charges or to make sure the bank hasn’t frozen your account due to suspected fraud, and how to take five suitcases home from the airport without breaking the bank on an Uber. On top of this, I felt trapped by constant unexpected expenses. There were outlet adapters, voltage converters, conversion fees, foreign expense charges, international data plans, a German SIM card… Even with a financial stipend from the MISTI program, the familiar fear of financial insecurity crept over me. After all, I had virtually no safety net. It felt as if a single mistake, like purchasing the wrong train ticket would result in a financial blow that would affect the rest of my trip.

As intimidating as moving to Germany was at first, I would never in a million years regret my choice.

As intimidating as moving to Germany was at first, I would never in a million years regret my choice. Forcing yourself outside your comfort zone is necessary to expand your worldview. In fact, I think my greatest asset when navigating unfamiliar situations is my FLI identity. FLI students know how to be resourceful, adaptable, and above all, resilient. Even as a fish out of water, FLI students know how to swim. With time I learned to enjoy the thrill of traveling and discovered that the most incredible adventures come at a minimal charge: hiking through the Black Forest, exploring the depths of European history, enjoying a delicious Käsebrezel und Kaffee for under 5 euros, practicing my German by speaking with friendly locals and fellow travelers alike. I was pleased to learn that groceries are relatively inexpensive in Germany, and thanks to a COVID-relief effort, the Deutsche Bahn train pass for short-distance travel costs only 9 Euros per month for the entire summer.

Aside from the financial realities of being FLI abroad, there is a personal one to contend with. As my departure date grew nearer, my anticipation for the trip was dampened by a biting sense of guilt: I should be at home, helping my mother around the house and saving up money. What gives me the right to eschew all my responsibilities? Was I being selfish… reckless even? Perhaps, I thought, it was ungrateful of me to feel conflicted in the first place. I was granted a chance to see the world, an option I know my parents never had. As I sent photos and excitedly recounted my days in Germany, I felt a deep regret that my mother could not be there with me. My mom worked incredibly hard to provide me with the life I have. The sacrifices she made enabled me to attend MIT in the first place. My accomplishments are just as much hers as they are mine. As pervasive as the guilt can be, it is important to recognize that these opportunities are precisely why parents fight for a better life for their children. It is by embracing new life experiences that we honor this effort. As I continue to expand my horizons around the world, I hope to do so with appreciation and pride for the people who made that possible.

Being FLI has many dimensions. I grew up seeing travel as a luxury, one which was certainly unattainable to me. Moreover, I was self-conscious that I lacked the tools necessary to manage this much travel–and more crucially, the funds. Nevertheless, I took the leap. Funnily enough, I have being FLI to thank for preparing me with the support system and skills needed to overcome my fears and adapt to any obstacle I might face. As I continue to learn, study, and explore all the incredible opportunities that Germany has to offer, I am proud to carry my FLI identity with me.

Crista Falk is a rising senior at MIT majoring in 6-9: computation and cognition. Right now, she’s living in Germany through the MISTI program and doing research in the ETP department at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.