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Students abroad don’t truly understand safety

Published: February 27, 2014, 3:03 am ET
Opinion Editor

In the past several years, the rate of college students studying abroad has increased dramatically. Not only do schools encourage spending a semester in a foreign country more these days, but students also seem to be encouraging each other. According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, 283,332 students studied abroad during the 2011-12 school year. Since then, the number has risen.

The problem with so many Americans traveling to Europe and other oversees destinations is often the lack of awareness. It’s easy to get trapped into a false sense of security when surrounded by so many English-speaking 20-year-olds. This topic has risen to the surface with the tragic death of Bates College student John Durkin last week.

Durkin’s life was taken from him all too soon. The student, who was enjoying his adventure abroad, went missing after a night at the bars and was subsequently hit by a train. While I do not blame Durkin for the tragedy, nor do I blame any of his friends, I do believe it engenders an important discussion. American students studying abroad must take safety issues more seriously: They need to increase their attentiveness and realize the potential risks of living, studying and partying in a foreign country.

Crystal Tran, a junior at University of Richmond who just returned from studying abroad in Rome, Italy, learned the hard way that getting too comfortable can be dangerous. Tran, and friends, were victims of a massive robbery in early November. “We came home around midnight and saw that our windows were all open and the lights were turned on … They took everything they could get their hands on,” Tran said. When asked about her feelings before and after the event, Tran mentioned that prior to the robbery, she “never felt unsafe.” In regards to nightlife, she felt as if she was “going out in Richmond” because she, and friends, always went to bars and clubs more frequently occupied by American study-abroad students.

Tran, like Durkin, was not totally at fault. But, both incidents demonstrate the danger in feeling protected by an “American bubble.” It is not a real safety blanket. Surrounding yourself by other fraternity and sorority members in a strange city does not magically remove all vulnerability. In fact, it can be argued that it puts students at a higher risk. I’ve experienced this first-hand. I’ve studied abroad and been around students who get too drunk, too obnoxious, too “American.” Suddenly, the group has everyone’s attention and not in a good way.

Michele Cox, the director of study abroad here at UR, agrees that “students let their guards down.” They are “not always aware of the nonverbal cues, much of which are cultural,” Cox continues. She further mentions that even insurance companies that work with study abroad programs warn against sending large groups to travel abroad together because of the development of this “American bubble.”

All young adults who embark on these epic Euro-trips are warned time and time again to be careful and make smart decisions. So, why do events such as the John Durkin incident persist? Maybe schools are not effectively preparing students. Maybe Americans studying abroad feel overly invincible. Maybe it’s a combination of these, plus other factors. I asked Cox what changes were to be implemented now and why safety warnings during pre-abroad orientations primarily involve petty theft when there are tragic cases like Durkin, Amanda Knox and former Collegian opinions editor Andrew Holter, who drowned in Italy’s Tiber River in 2005. The study abroad director said they were adding vital components to orientation sessions including sexual assault awareness and climate risks. I still believe more needs to be done.

The tragedies that affect Americans on international soil should be a lesson for all: We are the foreigners when we step foot off the plane in Barcelona, Perugia, Rome or wherever it may be, and although external threats, especially of violent nature, may be uncommon, it is always advised to practice caution.
To Richmond students recently accepted to abroad programs for this coming fall: Congratulations, you are about to experience something amazing. But remember, you are not immune to all dangers.

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  • Michele Cox

    I applaud you Stephanie for raising this issue and for your reminder to students that they are not invincible or immortal. It is great to have a peer reinforce safety. The OIE
    spends a lot of time discussing safety at orientations, sends out numerous materials and security updates to students while abroad. Having students who have studied abroad talk about this issue to students going abroad is very powerful so thank you Stephanie for being a good citizen of Richmond, the U.S. and the world.

    Our office is here to help provide advice and support regarding health and
    safety matters abroad. Come talk to us with any concerns you have before,
    during or after study abroad. We are here to help all students have a
    healthy, safe and successful semester or study trip abroad.

  • Michele Cox

    Thank you Sheryl for comments. I looked on your web site and will send the app information to our students going abroad as well as add this to our parent information. It is a wonderful addition to the security and health insurance and assistance paid for by Richmond and provided to every student going on a UR program abroad through our insurance company, FrontierMEDEX. We are fortunate to have the resources of FrontierMEDEX and are able to respond to emergencies 24/7 365 days a year when they are reported to us and/or the insurance company. We encourage students to use the insurance as it is a wonderful resource. Training faculty and staff leaders is also a key component of safety abroad and making sure they respond to emergencies of any nature in an immediate fashion is imperative. Staying abreast of events abroad and informing students of these events (or outbreaks) is a best practice of any study abroad office. Fortunately insurance companies like FrontierMEDEX as well as OSAC (part of the US Dept of State) are invaluable resources to professionals in international education, which should be fully utilized to ensure the safety and health of our students.

    Your advice about alcohol is excellent. Hopefully parents will also talk frankly to their students about risk and personal safety, including responsible alcohol behavior and avoidance of illegal substances both in the US and abroad. Noticing concerning behavior and reporting it is also helpful so help can be extended to students abroad.

    I applaud your education of this issue and also the work of your organization. Thank you for your comments.

  • http://pioneerconsultinggroup.com/ Travel Safety Team

    Stephanie,

    Great article and refreshing to see someone speak out about the lack of awareness and understanding about the potential risks when traveling overseas. Much more can and should be done to raise the awareness and more importantly properly prepare students and faculty for safe and rewarding travel and study overseas.

    I would love to discuss this matter with you further if you so wish. Please drop me a note to tcrockett@pioneercosnutlinggroup.com

  • CCS

    The Problem is not the foreign countries, it is young americans who do not how to drink. In Italy young people do not drink to get Wasted (as Americans like to say). Crime rates are Far lower in Italy than they are in the United States where drinking accidents take place daily. The problem is not educating your children about safety abroad, its about educating them, Period. This article is unbelievably xenophobic. This comes from a half Italian and half American that grew up in Rome witnessing the appalling behavior of american students that do not know how to behave maturely and gracefully.