Studying abroad: a game of risk in adventure, danger

Students, faculty take responsibility for safety measures while abroad

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Elon University’s Isabella Cannon International Centre has dozens of books available to students. Click for information. Photos by Stephanie Butzer

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

There are hundreds of study abroad programs that take students all over the world. The top three are the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. Click for more information.

By Stephanie Butzer

On a fall evening in London, an American student rode the Tube home with the blood of a stranger seeping from her shoes.

Ashley Barnas participated in a London study abroad program through Elon University in 2008. Little did she know this experience would test the limits of her safety.

As performers sang on stage at the Urban Music Awards, Barnas moved around the room, taking pictures of the artists and talking to her friends. She was an intern for a company called Invincible Media Group, where her main concentration was to help organize the event. It was a fun, light-hearted night and she was happy to see her work coming together.

Suddenly, chaos erupted in the room.

“All of a sudden you see and hear crashing and wine bottles flying everywhere, bottles smashing on the floor,” Barnas said. “Tables are overturning and chairs flipping over. It was literally from the inside out.”

A man had been stabbed. Barnas and her friends were close to the victim and their shirts and shoes were covered in his blood. They frantically shoved their way to an exit and tried to contact people from her internship for assistance.

Barnas realized her internship director had fled the scene, abandoning the students to fend for themselves. She also discovered  the stabbing was the result of a gang-related fight. Faculty from Elon allowed her to terminate the internship early and she finished the semester in London.

Barnas was one of the 260,327 students to study abroad for academic credit in the 2008 – 2009 school year, according to Open Doors, a comprehensive resource for international students and U.S. students looking to study abroad.

Click to enlarge. Information from

While most of these students did not face an experience like Barnas’, there have been scattered instances when students and study abroad program faculty had to face and immediately respond to an emergency, such as the earthquake in Japan in 2011 and the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003.

Universities nationwide have acknowledged the possibility of danger and responded by adjusting their study abroad programs, including adding safety measures, to help students stay out of harm’s way and avoid instances as nightmarish as Barnas’ experience.

The world can become a classroom when students step into foreign countries. Open eyes, an educated mind and street smarts can help them enjoy the experience and exercise safety measures.

A new country is a more than a new home

Every country is a new environment. There are different diseases, food, health risks, laws, customs and accepted norms. These differences provide a fresh challenge for students to submerse themselves in a foreign place and grasp new and inviting information.

“You’re in a new place,” said James Buschman, senior director of the office of global programs at New York University. “You’re a stranger in a strange land. As a result, things that are very basic – things that in your own culture you don’t think twice about – suddenly you really have to relearn.”

While students try to grasp new customs, languages, currency or mannerisms, the world and its people continue daily life. With their eyes on maps or up at street signs, natives can label students as foreign tourists, said Woody Pelton, dean of global studies at Elon University.

“I don’t know how they do it,” Pelton said. “It’s like we have a big U.S.A. on our forehead. That distinguishes you.”

Pelton said some citizens approach American students with genuine curiosity. Others ignore them. But some people make a living out of taking advantage of outsiders who appear lost and unaware, Pelton said.

“It’s typically pickpocketing,” said Kevin Morrison, assistant dean of global studies at Elon. “It’s not a violent kind of mugging. It’s usually just you go to reach for your wallet to pay for something and it’s not there.”

Trial and error can help students avoid these issues and understand cultures, Buschman said. NYU tells students it is an important part of the learning experience to do something wrong every day.

“Part of studying abroad is being in unpleasant situations every day, feeling frustrated every day,” Buschman said.

Study abroad experiences can open students’ eyes to places that are stereotyped as violent, poor and unattractive. Because they can immerse themselves in the culture, students have the potential to gain knowledge they may not have fully understood had they stayed at their designated school.

Cassandra McClellan is a junior currently studying in Jordan. Photo submitted.

Cassandra McClellan, a junior at Elon, studied in Amman, Jordan for the 2012 Fall semester. Through pre-departure information set up by her school and hands-on experience in the country, McClellan learned how to blend into the culture. Jordan has remained one of the few countries in the Middle East without significant societal or political problems even through the Arab Spring and its aftermath.

“I am so grateful to be in the Middle East and see firsthand that it is not the scary place so many people make it out to be,” McClellan said. “Jordan is a wonderful, safe place with friendly and hospitable people.”

McClellan said she feels surrounded by global citizens every day because she studies at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy. Eye-opening experiences like visits to Syrian refugee camps and speaking in Arabic to natives have created a semester she said she won’t forget.

“I think most people understand what a study abroad experience will do for one’s global awareness,” McClellan said. “The opportunity to travel abroad for four months is an amazing and truly a once in a lifetime experience.”

Preparation, organization before departing

Elon pre-departure courses have existed for just four short years. For the past two years, all study abroad programs were required to have a course prior to departure. Before these sessions were mandatory, students still met to discuss the program, but the meetings did not go into as much detail as the current courses. No credit was awarded and the meetings could be as formal or informal as the faculty members deemed necessary.

“Historically, orientation has always involved logistical issues: visas, what to pack, when we’re going to leave, how to prepare for it if you need immunizations,” Pelton said. “Now, that course is much more than that.”

The pre-departure courses have been very successful so far, possibly even more so than people originally anticipated, Pelton said. Students can walk confidently into a foreign country with months of preparation behind them.

“Knowing those things in advance lets students properly prepare themselves for those potential problems,” Morrison said. “The more informed you are, the more prepared you are to handle whatever might come your way, the positive and potentially negative.”

Morrison emphasizes to students that risks should be avoided at all costs.

“You don’t walk down a dark street by yourself here at Elon, why would you walk down a dark street in Barcelona?” Morrison said. “If you wouldn’t go out to bar alone here in the U.S., why would you do it in Madrid?”

Throughout Elon’s pre-departure courses, faculty try to sound like advisors, not parents, Morrison said. It is important for students to recognize themselves as adults and pursue their fields of study, all while exploring the world based off their own choices. Morrison hopes they do so without letting their guard down.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Buschman said. “We can give them a lot of advice. We can organize everything for them. But we can’t force students to always make the best decisions.”

Like Elon, NYU requires students to attend a pre-departure session, but it lasts just one day. After this intensive orientation, students are encouraged to examine NYU’s website for additional information relevant to their program.

Buschman said the students have full access to the page and are encouraged, and in some cases required, to look at specific material. The department can monitor who visits the site, but it cannot ensure that the material has been read. That power lies with the student.

The information is available to the program participants throughout the semester and it is updated as the departure date nears and more questions come up.

“One of the things that we’ve learned is that students, and parents too, frankly, are ready for certain information at certain times,” Buschman said. “Our staff understands that orientation never ends. Students may well need some orientation a week before they’re going home. That’s just the nature of study abroad.”

These curiosities usually start as general questions and narrow down to specifics as they explore the country and what it has to offer, Buschman said. A growing curiosity, paired with information from the Web pages, can provide tools for students to explore an unfamiliar area confidently and responsibly.

Global communication connects countries into a safety net

Countries differ in customs, mannerisms and culture.
Click to enlarge.

New updates and proposals help university faculty around the nation understand more efficient and foolproof ways to keep students safe, healthy and happy while abroad.

Many schools subscribe to receive email blasts from the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) or Travel Warnings from the United States Department of State.

If the U.S. Department of State issues a Travel Warning, entire study abroad programs can be canceled or reevaluated. Travel Warnings are only announced when conditions make a country unstable or hazardous for outside travelers.

The OSAC allows schools to stay up to date with the status of each country. As helpful as this is, Pelton said, it is faster and more accurate to communicate with host partners.

“It’s one thing to get a newsfeed from CNN, but it’s another thing to be right there and look out of the window and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t look as bad to me as it does on CNN,’” Pelton said. “You have to remember that the news medium is a business.”

NYU was ranked No. 1 for quantity of students studying abroad in the 2009 – 2010 academic year, with 4,156 students studying overseas. The university sends its students almost entirely to its own international facilities, which allows the school to control the buildings the students reside in. It also lets them make necessary measures for student safety.

“Typically, what we will do in a place where we don’t own the buildings, is we take out very long leases, like 20-year leases, and build into those leases some incentives for us to remodel the property within whatever the regulations are,” Buschman said.

Under these leases, NYU has altered buildings in ways they believe will keep students safer. For example, a balcony on the fifth floor of a historic building in Berlin, Germany was closed off to ensure no students would accidentally fall.

Buschman was part of a group of faculty that helped each of NYU’s overseas sites to install computer-coordinated key entry to the buildings. The key tracks when and where students are moving and faculty can limit access to certain places at specific times.

Faculty members who stay on the international campuses are required to talk to police officers about the level of crime activity in the area before NYU commits to send students to a specific neighborhood

“That’s helped us because no place is completely crime-free,” Buschman said. “That gave us a good way to build into our orientation some guidance to students on how to stay safe. We could specifically warn them of dangers that were there in the neighborhood and how they should watch out for them.”

Sexual assault prevention has become more prevalent because females make up 64.4 percent of the students who studied abroad in 2011. Schools are recognizing this and responding accordingly. For example, the University of Oklahoma’s Women’s Outreach Center Peer Educators created a video explaining how students can avoid sexual assault.

Some colleges also give students instruction manuals containing step-by-step guidance in case of an emergency. To prepare students for earthquakes in Japan, Earlham College offers handbooks to review during the first days of on-site orientation. Their program in Tokyo takes a field trip during the second week of orientation to visit an earthquake simulation and fire safety center in the city.

Goucher College requires all of its students to study abroad at least once. Their study abroad rate is between 117 percent and 120 percent, meaning it is not unusual for a student to go abroad a second or even third time.

With such a high number of students off the main campus, Goucher takes extra care when prepping students to travel.

After they are accepted into a study abroad program, Goucher students are required to submit a comprehensive health form, which contains both physical and mental health issues. Then, the office of international studies works closely with the student and faculty program leaders to ensure the issues can be accommodated.

“It’s much more work on the front end, but it eliminates the challenges that students and faculty face when undisclosed challenges have to be dealt with overseas with little or no preparation,” said Daniel Norton, associate dean of the office of international studies at Goucher College.

Goucher also requires its faculty program leaders to attend a risk management workshop so they are prepared to handle a situation with a distressed student.

In Elon’s “Costa Rica: Jungle Service” study abroad program, students take part in several service projects and work in villages in Sierrepe, Costa Rica.

For some of the group’s time there, they do not have cell service. The program leaders carry a satellite phone in case they encounter an emergency out of the cell phone service range and require communication. In addition, Jeff Carpenter, the program leader, completed the Wilderness First Aid course so he would be able to respond quickly and efficiently to an emergency in the jungle.

“We don’t have students in a situation that I would consider overall more unsafe than what one normally experiences in life,” Carpenter said. “Yes, for some of the course we are more isolated off in the jungle than the norm. But we also don’t face any of the risks of, for example, driving in a car, or petty crime that people face when they are in the ‘civilized’ world.”

Ensuring exit strategies are ready

Incidents are bad enough when they occur at home. When something happens abroad, it’s important for students to understand how to handle the issue or know somebody who can guide them to safety.

Barnas said even though her boss abandoned her at the Urban Music Awards, she knows it could have happened anywhere in the world, so she does not hold a grudge against her experience. London still remains her favorite city in the world.

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Woody Pelton (right) and Kevin Morrison (left) work in the office of global studies at Elon University.

“Some places overseas may be safer, in fact, than Raleigh and Charlotte for example, certainly Detroit and Chicago,” Pelton said. “But somehow it becomes a story when it happens overseas.”

Emergencies vary, but the University of Oklahoma defines an emergency as an assault, injury, natural or political disaster, arrest, detention or any other serious risk to a student’s well-being.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, like several other schools, subscribes to email blasts from the State Department containing information about the conditions of countries around the world. The study abroad office also monitors the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates on diseases that may affect students.

If a student should fall ill, NYU is prepared to take action and bring him or her to an English-speaking medical facility. In case of an evacuation emergency, Buschman said they have always ensured there is a place for students to go outside of the city or area where they resided.

The faculty at NYU know train schedules and bus companies that would be available to transport students out of the affected region in an evacuation.

Although most schools will not run programs in an area under a Travel Warning, students can still go abroad if they sign a waiver that releases the university from liabilities. Through this process Duke University, for example, has allowed students to study in places such as Kenya, Lebanon and Israel.

Worldwide emergencies call for worldwide communication

Natural disasters hit a different chord because they are unstoppable and not always predictable. Many schools around the country had students studying in Japan in May 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami hit.

“Who would have thought Japan would have been a dangerous place to be eighteen months ago?” Pelton said. “But all of a sudden – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactor. It was suddenly an issue.”

Elon was able to keep contact with the three students they had abroad at Kansai Gaidai University. For some time, it seemed like the best option would be to pull them out of Japan, Pelton said. But, the area the students were studying in was unaffected and, after discussions with the school, Elon allowed the students to stay to complete the semester.

Photo credit August Armbrister

August Armbrister, a student at UNC, was studying in Japan at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. Photo credit August Armbrister

Others were not as lucky. August Armbrister, a student at the UNC Chapel Hill, was studying as an exchange student at the Waseda University in Tokyo when he experienced the earthquake firsthand. He was babysitting at his host family’s home when the initial quake and aftershocks hit.

“The house was shaking severely, cabinets were opening, dishes were falling down, shelves were moving back and forth,” Armbrister said. “The house felt like it was supported by Jello.”

UNC was in touch with Armbrister right away and asked about his access to food and any health concerns, Armbrister said. Between the intense radiation and lack of water and other necessities, UNC decided to terminate the program and bring him and the other students back to North Carolina. But when Armbrister arrived in the United States, he faced another surprise.

“Because we were withdrawn from our exchange program, and we did not complete the term, we had to re-enroll as students,” Armbrister said. “For a few weeks, I and those who participated in UNC exchange programs in Japan were technically not students at UNC.”

Armbrister was told he needed to re-enroll and pay the fee for the school’s application. He said he was frustrated his school made him leave Japan only to punish him with a rule he felt should not have applied to him.

“I felt like UNC should have taken care of that as soon as they told us to leave Japan,” he said.

When campus and national media interviewed him about how UNC handled the situation, Armbrister expressed his disappointment. Once that news began to spread, he received an email saying he no longer needed to re-enroll as a student.

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Student study abroad programs have hundreds of destinations worldwide.

In other situations, reluctant students ignored safety precautions and evacuation plans.

Students from Syracuse University still wandered in the night when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic hit Hong Kong in 2003. This highly contagious disease spread quickly in the big city so Syracuse faculty began canceling classes and assembling the students in special residencies. They also started to make plans to get out of the country.

But the students did not take the epidemic seriously.

“On the ground, to a student, it didn’t look all that serious,” said Buschman, who was a former Syracuse professor. “We had various people even petitioning the president of the university to be allowed to stay.”

By the end of the week, SARS became a large enough issue that a flight was arranged to fly the students back to the United States. At this time, student opinion had drastically changed.

“We no longer had students and parents protesting that they had to go,” Buschman said. “We had them protesting that they couldn’t get out on an earlier flight.”

The students missed the last portion of the study abroad, but they were lucky enough to receive most of their credits. An emergency evacuation or program termination in the beginning or end of a semester is easier to navigate because most of the students’ academic credit is safeguarded and the school can usually offer for them to return to their home campus.

Evacuations in the middle of a semester present a bigger challenge.

“That’s very, very hard because the investment has already been made,” Buschman said. “The funds from the student tuition have already been used to cover the cost of instructors, flying students out, or whatever it is. There’s not much of a refund that can be given at that point.”

Duke had to address this issue during the fall semester in 2003. But, the students were lucky to not lose their credit.

“One of the Bolivia evacuations was in the middle of the semester,” said Margaret Riley, assistant vice provost for undergraduate global education at Duke. “We reinserted the students into Bolivia when the situation had stabilized, so they were able to complete the semester.”

When emergency strikes, students, faculty answer

More students are studying abroad now than ever before. In the 2010 – 2011 academic year, almost 274,000 students traveled to another country to study. With so many students abroad, accidents are prone to happen simply because there are so many students off campus, Pelton said

No program can guarantee safety, health, academic credit or financial investment, Buschman said. But with correct preparation, students can carefully examine and respond to issues as they present themselves. Armed with common sense and pre-departure information, students are more prepared to make educated choices.

In the previous years, with advanced communication, schools around the nation have altered their programs to ensure the greatest safety for their students. The times have changed, but many schools are keeping the pace.

“What’s happened is that we’ve become better prepared at how to deal with it,” Pelton said. “What happens when something bad happens? Well, we’re better at that than we used to be, as a field and profession. We take safety very seriously.”


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4 thoughts on “Studying abroad: a game of risk in adventure, danger

  1. KarolynWojtowicz November 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm Reply

    This was a great post!

  2. Stephanie Butzer November 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm Reply

    Thank you!

  3. andersj November 24, 2012 at 7:23 am Reply

    Stephanie, the care and work you put into getting this right from the beginning shows in the final result. It takes time to do the critical thinking required to report well on a multi-layered issue story. Take pride in this professional in-depth piece! You can also see for yourself how much more quality and care are evident to your audience in a piece that has visual reinforcement – well-shot photos, supporting infographics, pull-out quotes and a video that lets us see one or more of the important players. You have learned how to meet people on their ground and how to ask them to share their personal stories, their concerns and their passion. This is “A” work. Keep reporting this way all the time. I will send you an email later with more details of your grade in the course up to this point.

  4. Hidroplasto May 4, 2015 at 10:38 am Reply

    Wow, marvelous weblog format! How long have you ever been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The total glance of your web site is fantastic, as well as the content!

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