Abroad programs plan for emergencies

The Learning Abroad Center has canceled one abroad program in the last five years.

Lindsay Guentzel

When the walls of her hostel in Lima, Peru started shaking on Aug. 15, University of Minnesota-Duluth senior Brittany Jurek wasn’t too worried. Having been warned about the small shocks beforehand, the group of students she was traveling with was prepared for them.

“Earthquakes are common in Lima. They have little ones on and off that last just a little bit,” Jurek said.

What initially felt like a passing train soon grew into fierce shakes that reminded Jurek of a rollercoaster ride, she said. It was at that point the group realized it was an actual earthquake.

“I don’t remember anybody being that scared,” Jurek said. “But then it started to go a little bit longer so our group leaders were like, OK, everybody get under the door shaft.”

As the earthquake passed the two-minute mark, the group evacuated the hostel and waited outside on the street until the building was safe to enter.

With no telephone or Internet service, students relied on international cell phones to contact their families.

“I called my mom, and she was having a heart attack because she was nervous about me going there in the first place,” Jurek said.

Registering at an 8.0 magnitude on the Richter scale, the earthquake hit 93 miles southeast of Lima and produced two large aftershocks that both registered at a 5.9 magnitude.

Al Balkcum, the director of the University’s Learning Abroad center, said while emergency plans are not often utilized, it is important for students traveling abroad to have plans set up in case a national emergency arises during their travels.

Students traveling through the Learning Abroad Center are made aware of their emergency plan during their planning process, he said.

“We have on-site staff and all of the programs that run through us are required to have a set of emergency procedures, and that also includes an evacuation plan,” Balkcum said.

Between November 2002 and July 2003, University and government officials advised students to return home from Southeast Asia due to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic. 

“We can’t force students to come home,” Balkcum said. “But at the same time it was a very strong recommendation.”

Balkcum said the Learning Abroad Center and the Education Abroad Suspension Committee decide program cancellations and suspensions.

In 2002, a summer program in Venezuela was canceled due to the country’s current political situation, he said.

“At this institution, we have a goal of having half of the graduating class at the University of Minnesota having an international experience abroad,” Balkcum said. “I think having an international perspective is invaluable for any college student.”

American studies junior Tom Atchison, who will be studying in London this spring semester, said the threat of natural disasters and pandemics doesn’t deter him from studying abroad.

“I think that a part of the charm of studying abroad is being introduced to new situations of life that we don’t necessarily see,” Atchison said. “I mean, I wouldn’t be totally excited if I was in China and everyone got SARS, but I think it would be interesting to see how the country handled it.”