Study abroad program to Kenya continues

Violence in Kenya threatened the continuation of the program for spring.

While other University students enjoyed winter break, global studies senior Emily Hassing was hanging out in Zanzibar, Kenya, trying to avoid the postelection violence that had broken out around the country.

Hassing was one of nine students in Kenya for a year with the Minnesota Studies in International Development program on Dec. 27 when the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was accused of rigging the election.

When tribal violence ensued after the election, University officials began debating the fate of the spring semester MSID program, Learning Abroad Center Director Al Balkcum said.

Every time there’s a travel warning in a country, the LAC must get permission from the University Education Abroad Suspension Committee in order for students to travel, Balkcum said.

The University announced on Jan. 10 that the spring semester program would be postponed for one week, and enrolled students had three ways to opt out of the program.

Students had the option to withdraw without penalty, defer to the fall semester or change to another country, program director Sheila Collins said.

About 30 of the students are still planning on traveling to Kenya, she said, and will leave on Sunday.

For the students’ security and safety, the University has suspended internships in western Kenya.

Hassing’s internship was in the Kisumu area during fall semester, she said in an e-mail.

Hassing said she does not agree with the decision to move her internship.

“We understand their concern, but I have never felt unsafe here,” she said. “(This) changes my research here, but it does not stop it.”

The MSID ground staff and the Learning Abroad Center have all been in contact with the students through phone calls, advisory e-mails and text messages, Hassing said.

“Our home-stay families, as well as the MSID on-site staff are protective of us,” she said, “sometimes causing us to lose days trapped inside instead of visiting libraries.”

Hassing said she and the other students have all been given emergency escape routes out of the country.

Balkcum said more details about the evacuation plans could not be released for the students’ safety.

University of Wisconsin sociology and human development family studies junior Kelsi Hines said she was shocked when she first learned of the violence in Kenya.

Hines, one of the students enrolled in MSID’s spring semester, said she knew she still wanted to continue with the program when the University made its decision.

“It almost didn’t even cross my mind to choose any of the other programs,” she said, “especially since the violence had settled down.”

Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean in the Office of International Programs, serves on the Education Abroad Suspension Committee, which decides whether or not it’s safe for students to travel abroad.

The EASC would be the body to decide whether to evacuate the students if the violence in Kenya does not subside, she said.

“We would have a lot of input from people closer to the ground, MSID staff, the U.S. Embassy, other universities,” McQuaid said.

The University does not hire private security firms for the emergency evacuation of students, she said.

Princeton University, for instance, hired the security firm International SOS to evacuate students from Beirut, Lebanon in 2006, according to a story in the Newark Star-Ledger.

The University has cancelled study abroad programs twice in recent years, McQuaid said.

A Morocco program was cancelled during the first Gulf War in 1990 and a Venezuela program was cancelled in 2002 after an attempt on Hugo Chávez’s life.