Study abroad mostly safe, officials say

Sascha Matuszak

An educational adventure in Guatemala that turned into a nightmare for a group of American college students Friday has stirred up new debate over the risks of study abroad programs in Latin America.
A busload of 13 students and three administrators from St. Mary’s College of southern Maryland were allegedly forced off the road, robbed and assaulted by a gang of gunmen near the town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa.
However, because the University’s Global Campus has not experienced any serious problems with its more than 150 study abroad programs available to students, program officials are not planning to make any drastic changes.
“We’re in pretty stable places,” said Al Balkcum, director of Global Campus. “All of the programs we sponsor are in locations we consider as safe and secure as they can be.”
He said the last incident his office had to deal with was more than three years ago when a group of students were assaulted in Kenya.
But local authorities in Guatemala say that kidnappings and robberies have become common — with wealthy foreigners and student groups being the main targets. Most distressing is the rise in assaults happening in broad daylight involving entire groups of foreign tourists, authorities said.
In July a hijacking of a bus resulted in two Americans and three foreigners being assaulted in a similar fashion. According to the U.S. Department of State, the latest incident is part of a pattern of violence that has lasted long after the end of civil war in Guatemala 13 months ago.
Although University students have not experienced any assaults as bad as the one on Friday, Balkcum said Global Campus officials have had to change plans in the past because of violence.
The study abroad program decided to move its Latin American Minnesota Studies in Development site from Columbia to Ecuador seven years ago because of the dangers of drug cartels.
The University does not have its own program in Guatemala, but it does work together with other organizations that do.
As of now, many heads of study abroad programs view the latest incident as tragic, yet isolated.
“There is no risk-free study abroad program,” said Amy Sunderland, executive director of the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, an independent organization made up of four-year liberal arts schools in the region, including the University. The consortium specializes in providing academic, experiential programs in the United States and abroad.
Although Guatemala has a record of assaults and robberies, no United States travel restrictions exist. Instead, the state department issues periodic travel advisories, updating Americans abroad on the dangers and risks of countries all over the world.
“We take the travel advisories seriously,” Sunderland said.
She added that the consortium in Guatemala would remain unchanged for now, but that onsite staff members and students have been alerted to the dangers.
“We don’t plan on making any changes to the itinerary,” she said.
All programs have different precautions depending on the location, the duration and purpose of the trip, Balkcum said.
For example, during the Gulf War a few places were deemed too dangerous for American students: Instead of going to Morocco an architecture group went to Mexico, and a trip to Turkey was also cancelled.
Furthermore, because of violence in 1995 during Guatemala’s presidential elections, consortium officials decided to move the first phase of the program from Guatemala to Colombia.
Most programs have safety and health precautions on site, including numbers to call a doctor or police.
But Balkcum said that on-site faculty members and native counselors often rely on local authorities.
“We would not be there if we did not trust them,” he added.
However, University officials say incidents such as Friday’s assault cannot be entirely avoided.
“We take every precautionary necessities, but no matter how much we do, things will happen,” said Balkcum. “If you remove risk from study abroad, you remove study abroad.”
Both Balkcum and Sunderland stressed the benefits and experiences to be won from study abroad programs, adding that the risks and rewards must be weighed out by the individual students themselves.
“It’s difficult to ensure the safety of students anywhere, even on campus,” Sunderland said.