Amid war’s unrest, students rethink studying abroad

Mary Stegmeir

KGeoff Ziezulewicz Kristin Charles always thought studying abroad during college was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

But now the first-year student is rethinking her decision to enroll in a May session program in Paris.

“My dad does not want me to go,” Charles said, adding that her family is worried about her safety in France, a nation opposed to U.S. military action in Iraq.

“I am highly confused. I don’t even know if I am going to end up going or not, but I really want to.”

Charles is not the only student unsure of what to expect when studying overseas during the war. Although no University May session or summer study abroad pro

grams have been canceled because of the war, the conflict in Iraq has created new safety concerns for U.S. students studying in other countries.

“I don’t think there is anyone who is not thinking about it,” said Jenny Huang, who will be studying physics in Italy and Switzerland during the May session.

“The worry is definitely there, but I don’t know how much it is affecting people,” she said.

Huang predicted her classmates on the trip might act more cautiously and try not to reveal their nationalities.

Officials from Global Campus, the University office that organizes study abroad trips, suggest that study abroad students blend into the local cultures during the war.

Students are also told to stay away from political demonstrations and tune into current events, Global Campus director Al Balkcum said.

Balkcum said all study abroad students receive general safety precautions for times of political or social unrest during their program orientations regardless of whether the United States is at war.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Balkcum said. “It always has been and always will be.”

He added that all students are in contact with on-site staff members, and each program has a contingency plan in place if student safety is compromised.

“I’m not concerned about the physical safety of any of our students right now (because of) the war,” he said.

“We have not gotten reports from students about anything serious, and we’ve been in touch with every single student that is abroad this semester,” Balkcum said.

Balkcum said the information his office has received from students indicates that feelings of anti-Americanism abroad do not necessarily translate into a dislike of U.S. citizens.

“The reports that we have been getting is that even in countries where there is a significant amount of anti-Americanism, it’s not directed at American students, or even at American tourists,” Balkcum said. “It’s pretty much directed at the U.S. administration. It does seem, from most accounts that we’ve got, that most people are making that distinction.”

Between 650 and 700 University students are currently studying abroad in Global Campus programs. Two hundred and fifty students are signed up for May session courses overseas, and summer enrollment appears to be on track.

No one has dropped out of any of the programs because of concerns about the war, Balkcum said.

A view from the East

Three University students studying in Middle Eastern countries say they have had mixed experiences since the war began.

Cynthia Salminen, an international relations junior studying in the United Arab Emirates, said she does not have many concerns about being overseas.

She said that because thousands of Europeans and Americans live in the Dubai, the locals “don’t look at me twice because I am American.”

“In general I feel much safer here than walking around on the streets of the United States,” she said.

Salminen said she has not seen any anti-American demonstrations or protests.

Alicia Sins, a global studies junior studying in Istanbul, Turkey, said she also feels comfortable in her surroundings.

“I don’t perceive a threat to myself,” she said. “But I understand that there is a chance of something happening. This is a very unstable part of the world.”

Sins said she has been advised which sections of Istanbul are more dangerous for Americans, and she tries to be less conspicuous and dress accordingly when she goes to those areas.

She registered with the U.S. consular warden system, a network used to keep authorities in contact with American citizens in case of emergency.

The demonstrations in Istanbul have been aimed at the U.S. government, not the American people, Sins said.

“I have not been threatened in any way,” she said.

Yasmina Raya, a first-year student in Cairo, Egypt, said her experience has been strikingly different than those in Istanbul and Dubai.

“Things are really bad here,” she said.

The weekly demonstrations at her university have been growing, and protesters have been hurt in clashes between students and the police, Raya said.

“I avoid the protests because it is so dangerous for Americans,” she said. “I also don’t speak English in front of people I don’t know.”

Raya, who is originally from Egypt, said despite her familiarity with the country’s culture, she has contacted the U.S. embassy as a precaution.

Travel warnings

Global Campus does not offer any programs in countries with U.S. State Department travel warnings. If University officials determine students in a study abroad program are in danger at any time, they will cancel the program and bring the students back to Minnesota.

One month after Sins arrived in Turkey, the United States issued a travel warning, but she did not leave.

“I think the schools who removed their students acted prematurely,” she said. “The fact that I am so near the conflict will only enrich the experience that I leave with.”

In its more than 20-year history, Global Campus has only canceled programs at two locations, Balkcum said.

A program in Morocco was cut short during the first gulf war in 1991. This year, spring semester, May session and summer programs in Venezuela have been canceled because of political unrest.

Earlier this year, another student exchange organization associated with Global Campus canceled a spring semester program in Jordan.

Balkcum, a seasoned traveler with an office wall crammed full of framed photos from exotic locations, said the war should not keep students from following through with study abroad plans.

“I would travel now,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not going to go to the Middle East right now, but I don’t have a fear of travel.

“I consider travel to be something that I need to be cautious about, but not avoid,” Balkcum said.

He said studying in another country helps students gain a more complete world perspective.

“I think the more awareness that students can have of the rest of the world – the way the rest of the world views us, the way the rest of the world thinks – the better off we all are,” he said.

“Maybe it will help us avoid getting in a situation like this in the future.”

Mary Stegmeir welcomes comments at [email protected]

Geoff Ziezulewicz welcomes comments at [email protected]