How college students can stay safe while studying abroad

Posted August 29

Utah State University journalism student Katherine Taylor recently studied abroad in Poland at the University of Wrocław. (Deseret Photo)

Jossalyn Jensen, a Juilliard School violist who won a Fulbright scholarship to study music in Paris for two years, is among the thousands of American students setting out to study abroad this fall.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I'm really looking forward being immersed in the musical culture and getting more into the language."

This will be the second time Jenson has studied in Paris. She plans to complete a second master's degree and will focus on modern and contemporary European compositions during her stay.

Study abroad programs are growing in popularity despite recent incidents of terrorism that can be frightening for students, parents and school administrators involved in the programs. The anxiety and uneasiness that accompanies the decision to study abroad is real and not imagined. Two University of California, Berkeley students were fatal victims of terrorism this year while studying overseas in France and Bangladesh.

But "even though it gets a lot of publicity and is really tragic and scary, your odds of being hurt or killed in a terrorist act are extremely low," said Lynn Elliott, the director of international study programs at Brigham Young University.

According to Elliott, college is the best time for students to travel abroad because it offers students the chance to earn college credit and international experience at a reasonable price.

He and other program directors say studying abroad is an enriching and rewarding experience when students are prepared to take the necessary precautions to stay out of harm's way. And for some students, the independence and adventure that comes from studying abroad trumps the threat of terrorism.

For Katherine Taylor, a Utah State University journalism student who recently studied abroad in Poland at the University of Wrocław, the risks were part of the allure to take advantage of an opportunity that she believes would not come again.

"I wanted to scare myself and test my independence," she said. "I just wanted to get out on my own and see who I was when my back was against the wall."

Number of programs

NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported on data from the Institute of International Education showing the number of U.S. students studying abroad increased 5.2 percent (from 289,408 to 304,467 or 1.5 percent of the U.S. student population) in 2013-14 from the previous school year, with the most popular destination being Europe. Thousands of study abroad programs take place every year in various places in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Oceania.

And the odds of such an experience turning fatal are slim.

According to a report published in Global Research, U.S. citizens are 1,901 times more likely to die in traffic incidents than in terrorists attacks. Additionally, U.S. citizens are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease and 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer than terrorist attacks.

"Statistically, the most dangerous part of the overseas trip might be the drive to the airport," Elliott said. "People die in traffic accidents all the time, and those odds are still really small."

The deaths of the University of California students were unavoidable and tragic, but "since putting our study abroad program in place nine years ago, these are the only Berkeley student deaths resulting from overseas terrorist acts of violence," Janet Gilmore, a media relations director for the school, said in an email.

Study abroad advisers from Cal were not available for further comment about some of the study abroad programs in the aftermath of the student deaths.


Although it is unlikely for students to encounter terror overseas, complete safety while studying abroad is never guaranteed.

"Risk is everywhere," Elliott said. "The thing that has to be kept in mind is that traveling abroad, like everything we do, there are certain dangers you are going to face."

And most study abroad programs prep students for study abroad experiences and have security protocols in place to protect students in cases of immediate danger.

Both the BYU and Berkeley study abroad programs require students to participate in a pre-departure meeting to discuss safety and health precautions as well as emergency evacuation procedures.

"I had a program adviser on the ground in Poland and a study abroad adviser back at home," Taylor said. "Every time there was a terrorist attack they would send an email to confirm that they are safe and you reply that you are safe."

The Berkeley study abroad program requires program leaders to have university issued cellphones where their numbers are shared with all program faculty and members so they can be on call 24/7 in the case of an emergency. Additionally, advisers are given a credit card with an extremely high spending limit to purchase airfare in the case of an emergency evacuation.

Elliott noted if there is a government travel warning in a certain area of a country, BYU will cancel programs or trips to those destinations.

"It's pretty common for most universities to operate that way," he said. "If the government says it is dangerous, we won't send students there."

U.S. Department of State has regularly updated its list of travel warnings.

If there isn't a travel warning in an area where there have been recent reports of danger, Elliott said BYU evaluates safety on a case-by-case basis.

"In those cases we give students a security briefing before they go," he said. "Tell them what kind of things they can do to maximize the chance that they will be safe and what kind of things to avoid."

Traffic accidents and water-related incidents are the most common ways Americans die abroad, Elliott said.

"You're likely to increase your chances to be safe if you are careful on how you drive and how you cross the street and what taxis you take," he said.

According to an FBI report on study abroad safety, there are other dangers besides terrorism while studying abroad, including pickpocketing and identity theft.

"Pickpocketing happens to people who are not paying attention or taking care of their belongings and fail to use common sense cautions," Elliott said.

Experience and value

For Jensen, when it came to deciding whether to study abroad again, the benefits far outweighed the threat of danger.

She will study at Conservatoire de Paris, a music and dance college founded in 1795, where she will study with some of the world's top talent in her discipline, along with exposure to French culture.

The type of experience Jensen will have is viewed as a plus for prospective employers, as well. The NAFSA: Association of International Educators' report also cited a survey that found "almost 40 percent of companies surveyed missed international business opportunities because of a lack of internationally competent personnel. When 95 percent of consumers live outside of the United States, we cannot afford to ignore this essential aspect of higher education."

For Jensen and the 17 others awarded the coveted Fulbright scholarship, the education, room and board is free. But the cost of other study abroad programs varies depending on the length of the program and what countries the student plans to visit. At BYU, the average cost to study abroad in Paris for fall semester is between $8,500 and $8,900 compared with $5,400 to $5,800 to study in Nanjing, China.

Add in the safety net of a college-sponsored program, the length of stay and possibility of earning college credit, and program directors say the opportunity is a bargain.

Many students apply for some type of financial assistance to fund their study abroad. For Taylor, she paid with a mix of loans and scholarships.

While cost was a factor, Taylor said her safety was the first thing she considered before deciding to study at the University of Wrocław.

At one point she searched the homicide rates in Wrocław and said it was about the same as Logan, Utah, where Utah State is located and which was ranked as the safest city in the Western United States.

“In the end, I just took a shot. I made the choice I thought the person I wanted to be would make," Taylor wrote in a blog post.

Taylor said she felt relatively safe during her trip — with the exception of encountering a few drunk people on the street — and the experience she gained in Wrocław was unlike anything she would have gained in Logan.

“I have a more global perspective and I grew so much,” she wrote. “I’ll tell you that now, when I read about a bombing in Istanbul, I check Facebook to see the last time the Turkish people from my dorm, friends and acquaintances, were online. I’ll tell you it made the person I am today, and that it changed my life.”


Twitter: megchristine5


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