The earthquake in Japan and the protests-turned-revolution in Egypt are reminders of events that can affect students while studying abroad. Yet incidents like these should not deter students from going abroad. In fact, the evacuation of American students from Egypt highlights how well prepared study abroad programs really are for such contingencies.
Like domestic universities, all study abroad programs have protocols in place in case of an emergency, but there are also ways in which students also play a role in their own security. “Orientations always start with safety,” says Prema Samuel, the director of international programs at Sarah Lawrence College. Students should be aware of their emergency contacts and make sure that they provide their program directors with the relevant contact info for themselves. If students ever find themselves in a situation where they are unable to get in touch with program leaders, they can also turn to U.S. embassies. “It’s rare that a student is going to go to places where there isn’t an American consulate or an American Embassy,” says Samuel.
Before leaving the U.S., students should take note of the suggestions provided for them by their programs, which strive to keep students as safe as possible. “We provide students with a handbook that has a comprehensive outline for things they need to think about and plan for,” says Paul Watson, the senior vice president of the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS). “They need to recognize when they are in a different culture, things are indeed very different than what their day-to-day experiences are here and they need to be aware of that.”
Many programs make an effort to inform students about the specific differences in their study abroad country, so few students arrive with overly naive attitudes. Most students study abroad during their junior or senior year, and are likely to have already had the experience of relocating and living away from their parents. “I think students are pretty savvy actually,” says Samuel. “They are going to be a little bit more guarded and I think for the most part Americans tend to be more guarded until they get to know people.”
The idea that tourists are targeted by thieves and pickpockets may be somewhat exaggerated, but most programs still recommend that students go out in groups. Students should not drink alcohol excessively, even when it seems more culturally acceptable than in the United States. “One of the most important things, of course, is their conduct as it applies to the use of alcohol,” says Watson. “So often when problems do occur, the use or abuse of alcohol is a factor.” This point is highlighted by the news coverage surrounding the death of Austin Bice, a San Diego State University student studying in Madrid. He was last seen too inebriated to be allowed into a night club.
Safeguarding documents is another precaution students can take. Almost all study abroad programs keep copies of participants’ passports, but students should also keep high-quality color copies of their documents. “They will come in very handy if a passport has been lost or stolen and needs to be replaced,” says Watson. “Of course we advise students to safeguard those documents very carefully and advise them not to carry them around with them if they don’t need to. It’s best to keep them locked and safely stored.”
Lastly, Watson says students should take note of any differences in laws while in a foreign country. “They might not have the same sort of rights and privileges and access if something does go wrong,” he explains. “They are going to be subject to the legal system of that country. But largely the advice we’re giving is the same kind of advice that you would give any young person traveling to a new location, whether it be here, domestically or abroad.”
How to Get the Most Out of Studying Abroad