Students, administrators aim to keep study abroad life as usual despite terrorist threats


Source: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/Zuma Press/TNS

Messages and tributes placed by members of the public following the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22. One Northwestern student interning in Brussels checked in safe shortly after the attacks.

Shane McKeon, Campus Editor

As Julie Friend drove around Pakistan with a convoy of Medill graduate students, the administrator — whose job was to make sure the young reporters stayed safe — said her chief concern was not terrorism or the Taliban, but something more mundane.

She insisted that everyone buckle up.

“A seatbelt is the most important thing to keep you safe abroad,” said Friend, the University’s director of global safety and security. “I was pretty militant about that.”

Indeed, the leading cause of death for American travelers abroad is automobile accidents, according to statistics from the State Department. Eighth on the list: terrorism.

Although the attacks in Brussels reignited some Americans’ fears about terrorism abroad, the University has no plans to change policy following the attacks there and in Paris, Friend said.

Friend pointed out that terrorism is not among the leading threats to American students abroad, and said she’s more concerned with everyday dangers: a car accident on a road that’s too congested for an ambulance to arrive quickly, or a beachgoer who swims too far out and drowns because there’s no lifeguard on a public beach. (The University hasn’t had a student die abroad from a car accident or drowning, Friend said.)

“A student who gets into a car accident in Paris — I know they’ll get access to some of the best medical care in the world,” she said. “A student who gets into an accident in rural India, we’ll find a way to get to them, but they’ll probably be triaged by a local hospital, and the care will not be as good.”

Still, a brush with terrorism can leave a student with an emotional weight that doesn’t lift easily.

Communication junior Savannah Birnbaum was studying in Paris when Islamic State terrorists launched the attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds more injured. Sitting in her apartment, she called her parents and let them know she was OK, but she still felt shook up.

Although it took a few weeks to get past that shock, she said support from administrators helped her readjust. She said Friend emailed a list of “common sense precautions” that included heightened awareness in public spaces and on public transportation. She said the advice helped.

“They were definitely right there,” she said. “It was a reminder that there were people looking out for me at home. I wasn’t stranded in this foreign country.”

It wasn’t the first time terrorism touched her life: Birnbaum, who grew up in Manhattan, was six years old on 9/11. Her parents pulled her out of school that day, and she said she remembers an “ash rain” falling around her neighborhood.

She said the two tragedies led her to conclude that terrorism “could reach me anywhere I am,” and so she shouldn’t live in fear of it.

“At first, there were feelings of just being scared and not being sure, and then slowly getting over that and becoming someone who could handle those everyday uncertainties and insecurities,” Birnbaum said.

Because of that threat, the Office of Global Safety and Security, which Friend directs, has a process that requires program sponsors to prove to University administrators that students will be safe abroad.

When the State Department determines there are “long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous” for American travelers, it issues a travel warning. According to the department’s website, a warning prompts travelers to “consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.”

The department also issues travel alerts, which, by contrast, are less severe and often ask travelers to be more vigilant. The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert after the Paris attacks and a Europe-wide alert after the Brussels attack. Alerts do not usually require programmatic changes, although Friend’s office often will release short statements about some noteworthy alerts, she said.

When issued, travel warnings set off a mandatory review process among administrators: All future programs in the affected country are automatically suspended, but a program’s sponsor can apply for permission to continue with the program as planned. Provost Dan Linzer has final say on whether or not a program continues.

Currently, the University has affiliated or sponsored programs in four countries with outstanding travel warnings: Israel, Kenya, Mexico and Turkey.

This past fall, Weinberg sophomore Parker Levinson worked in Kenya, where terrorist attacks and violent crime have led the State Department to issue multiple travel warnings since 2013. But Levinson said she wasn’t worried at all living in the country’s western region, noting the attacks were mostly in Nairobi, the northeast and along the Somali border to the east.

“It’s the same personal safety you’d think about in Chicago at night,” she said. “Just common sense things: making sure I was home before it got dark, wearing a helmet on the motorcycle. It wasn’t anything special.”

She also said the University limited her travel to keep her safe: No traveling overnight, and no trips out of the country or to Nairobi. They also “drew a circle on a map,” she said, roughly 100 miles in radius and outside of which she could not travel.

Although violence might threaten only a particular region of a country, State Department warnings are country-wide. For example, Turkey currently has a travel warning due to terrorism along the Syrian border to the southeast. NU’s study abroad programs in Turkey are based in Istanbul, more than 600 miles from the Syrian border.

Weinberg senior Will Oliver traveled to Israel during Spring Quarter 2014. He said he had to adjust to the heightened security that pervades the country: metal detectors in shopping malls, uniformed men with AK-47s patrolling public spaces. But he said after a month or so he got used to it, and the trip let him see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with new eyes.

“Overall, I felt very safe,” he said. “I had this first-hand experience to understand what it’s like to be Israeli and what it’s like to be on the other side.”

Friend said she understands some students might be apprehensive about traveling abroad.

“We’re not forcing anyone to go anywhere,” she said. “Everyone needs to travel within their own tolerance for risk.”

Bill Anthony, director of the study abroad office, acknowledged that students abroad can harbor some fears. Those fears can range from sounding foolish in a foreign language to horrific terrorist attacks.

But he said conquering those fears is part of the value of studying abroad.

“It’s easy for an old guy to say, but be bold,” he said. “The bubble is comfortable. But, in my experience, it’s discomfort that produces some growth.”

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Twitter: @Shane_McKeon