Checking in: Students study abroad despite threat of terrorism

Sunday, September 11, 2016 - 3:24pm

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Anjale Alangaden

 

On August 4, Nadine Jawad, a Ford junior at the University of Michigan, received a text on the lawn of Magdalen’s campus at the University of Oxford, holding her phone in one hand and playing with a piece of grass in the other.

“God, my phone is blowing up because of that stabbing,” she said. “It’s like, I’m fine, mom.”

The incident happened earlier that day in London, a city an hour and a half from Oxford by bus. The perpetrator had knifed victims indiscriminately near Russell Square. Among the five injured, one woman — an American tourist — was killed.

Darlene Horton, 64, was traveling with her husband who was teaching abroad when she was killed.

Other American students on the lawn, sitting next to her, started checking their phones too, receiving emails from concerned family members across the country.

In a post-9/11 world and a post-Brussels Europe, this scenario has played out over and over — families contacting loved ones abroad or wondering, “What if it was my son or daughter?” at home. Amid mounting terrorist attacks in Germany, France, Britain, Turkey, Belgium, Russia and Spain, reports warning foreign students to avoid places like shopping malls, schools, airports and other forms of public transportation are increasingly common.

On May 31, the U.S. Department of State issued a warning specifically about traveling in Europe between that date and August 3, telling travelers to be on alert for potential terrorist attacks targeting major events, commercial areas and transportation.

“The large number of tourists visiting Europe in the summer months will present greater targets for terrorists planning attacks in public locations, especially at large events,” the alert read.

The Department of State wasn’t wrong. Three weeks before the stabbing in London, a truck was driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing at least 84 people and leaving 18 others wounded in the French Riviera city of Nice.

Amid this atmosphere, the Center for Global and Intercultural Study, the office that coordinates most study abroad programs for LSA students, sent about 650 to 700 University of Michigan students abroad this summer.

LSA junior Margaret O’Connor was among 13 University students studying abroad in Germany through the Center of Intercultural and Global Studies at the time. She wrote in an email interview that she was eager to experience the culture first-hand and exercise her language skills in a way that would be impossible to do in the United States.

“Because both of my sisters attended (the University) and studied abroad, I've envisioned myself doing the same for a few years,” O’Connor wrote. “I’ve studied German for several years in high school and later took intensive German in the (Residential College), so going there made a lot of sense for me.”

O’Connor was traveling across Berlin on the underground with two of her friends on the night of a popular soccer game. The train was fairly crowded and rowdy, with many passengers from the game.

While waiting for their connecting train, O’Connor and her friends heard three small explosions that sounded like they were coming from the train car. People began to scream, and O’Connor immediately believed she was in the center of a terrorist attack.

“It took about a minute for us to realize it was only fireworks some excited sports fan had lit off, but the feeling of pure terror we experienced was really rattling,” O’Connor wrote. “It made me really sad and angry that we live in a world where attacks like this are almost expected, and could happen anywhere to anyone.”

When recollecting the experience, O’Connor wrote that she wondered whether they reacted the way they did because they were abroad, and news of the dangers abroad has been anything but understated. She noted, however, that she did not believe her family and friends would have deterred her from going abroad and that for her, there was no perceived threat regarding her visit to Germany.

“Shortly after we came home, however, Munich was struck by more gun violence, and I felt weirdly connected to it because it happened right in the middle of the city not far from where we spent most of our time,” O’Connor wrote.

For O’Connor, potentially dangerous situations alone wouldn’t deter her from an enriching educational experience, but she added that it would certainly be a consideration if she were to go on a future trip.

Speaking to programs in France in particular, Rachel Reuter, the health and safety adviser for CGIS, said despite mounting terrorist reports from the country, the number of students applying to study abroad has steadily increased over the past several years. CGIS reported the numbers of their Winter application cycle showed 23 applications in 2014, 33 in 2015, and so far this year more than 62 students have applied to study in France.

LSA senior Mallory Jamett said she chose the Arts in Paris program because it was the best opportunity that worked within her art history major. Her parents were nervous about her decision, but Jamett believes they would have been hesitant regardless of where she chose to study.

“The Paris attacks were fresh on everyone’s mind, but since U of M hadn’t canceled any other study abroad programs to that area, my parents didn’t see any large cause for alarm,” Jamett said.

Jamett was watching fireworks on the lawn by the Eiffel Tower during the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice. Upon returning to the home of the French family she was living with, Jamett checked her phone for the first time that night. It was flooded with concerned messages asking where she was, asking if she was OK. After checking Twitter, Jamett learned that a truck had intentionally driven into the celebrating crowd.

Jamett said this attack came as a nasty shock to French citizens and study abroad members alike, but she wasn’t that surprised.

“The strange thing was, I didn’t find it terribly shocking, and I think it was because I had been desensitized to violent attacks from the U.S. With so many mass shootings and violent crimes, as a culture, America sees this violence much more often than France,” Jamett said. “I recognize that this tragedy caused lots of people fear and grief, but at the same time, I could only recognize the effect of it. I felt very little of these emotions myself.”

CGIS Director Mike Jordan said the swell in applications, despite the changed atmosphere, speaks to the strength of the programs and the mindsets of the students seeking those opportunities.

“If you look at something like what happened in Brussels, three students backed out but one was unrelated to the attacks, so two students out of 21 withdrew,” Jordan said.

In Jamett’s 22-person program, participants were University students from a variety of majors.

“I consider the U.S. to be dangerous; the entire world is filled with risks. It’s a matter of if that area is an active war zone,” Jamett said. “If the area that I want to study in is particularly violent, then I would definitely reconsider studying there, but to rule out an area purely due to fear would be shortsighted.”

Jordan, the junior studying at Oxford, expressed a similar sentiment, citing the color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale — an alert system for travelers post- 9/11 through Homeland Security. The different levels, beginning with green, which signifies a low threat, and ending with red, indicating a severe threat, trigger specific actions by federal agencies and state and local governments, and impact the security measures at some airports and other public facilities.

“It seems like for a year or more the risk color was orange,” Jordan recalled. “You cannot just live in constant fear.”

When a real emergency hits, Reuter said CGIS has various measures in place to reach out to students and reassure families. The department has 10 emergency responders available to attend to the 24/7 emergency phone line. It also requires students, staff and faculty abroad to put location and contact data into their international travel registry. When circumstances become dangerous in a particular region, Reuter and her team hop online.

“I start contacting them via email, cell phone, Facebook, WhatsApp, however we can get a response,” Reuter said.

Due to the large numbers of students within LSA, Reuter said it is the only college with a position like hers. Through the Office of the Provost, another senior international health adviser is in place.

“We have partners on the ground throughout the world that provide logistical support for our programs,” Jordan said. “They have policies where once the students have all checked in with them, they’ll notify us. And I think that alleviates a lot of parents’ fears.”

Reuter also stressed the importance of registering side trips — any supplementary travel during a study abroad — through MCompass.

“I don’t care if you’re on a side trip in Amsterdam or drunk on a beach in Mexico, my goal is to make sure you’re safe,” she said.