Students studying in Prague encounter unexpected problems

Peter Kotecki, Development and Recruitment Editor

This story accompanies Anxiety Abroad,” an investigation of student calls for better sexual harassment and mental health resources while studying abroad. Read the investigation here.

Hannah Zweig had her purse stolen and got sick multiple times while studying abroad in Prague, incidents that showed the “true colors” of program administrators.

The Communication junior, who studied abroad last fall on a Council on International Education Exchange program, said administrators were not intentionally negligent but did not adequately provide support in these situations.

Zweig’s purse was stolen while she waited for a train back to her apartment. She was upset about losing her valuables and knew it would be difficult to retrieve her keys and credit card. Zweig returned to her apartment and called program staff, who were initially sympathetic, she said. They helped her get a new insurance card but were not helpful beyond that.

She needed the help of her “flat buddy” — the program’s term for Czech college students hired by CIEE to live with students and assist them — to make a new key and go to the post office to pick up money her parents had wired. However, the flat buddy refused, she said.

She asked administrators for a translator to accompany her, but they told Zweig to go with her flat buddy instead.

“It took me three trips to the post office because I had no one to translate,” she said. “It was a mess.”

At another point, Zweig got sick and was in bed for a week. She needed to see a doctor but didn’t know when pharmacies were open or how to read drug labels in Czech. Administrators helped her get a doctor’s appointment, but the doctor didn’t understand her due to a language barrier, Zweig said.

“I still don’t know what medicine I was taking,” she said.

Bill Bull, the vice president of program management at CIEE, said flat buddies are meant to serve as a first line of assistance with tasks such as going to the doctor or visiting the police. It is uncommon for flat buddies to not help students in need, he said.

Flat buddies need to speak English to be hired, and if a flat buddy is unable or unwilling to help, the CIEE staff will step in and assist the student, Bull said.

“Of course we want to assist our students when such things happen,” he said. “They’ve already been victimized.”

Mental health resources

Abbey Kutlas said she was concerned by the lack of mental health care on the Prague program.

The SESP sophomore said her program did not even include a conversation about mental health. Some students required mental health support, but Kutlas said the resources CIEE provided were “pretty shaky,” as administrators gave students the phone numbers of a few private therapists in the area.

Although the program directors told students they were always available to talk, they didn’t offer any on-site professional help, Kutlas said. No staff member was a mental health professional, she said.

“I am someone who has struggled with mental illness and takes advantage of mental health resources on campus at Northwestern, so that was concerning to me,” Kutlas said. “If I were to need some sort of service while I was in Prague — thank God I didn’t, but if I were, I have no idea where I would find that.”

CIEE has identified medical personnel at all of its study centers for students to talk to, Bull said. These professionals’ names are made available to students, but some students prefer to follow an insurance policy of their own or use a family contact, he said.

The professionals are not hired by CIEE, but the organization has worked with them for years, Bull said. CIEE looks for professionals who speak English, he added.

“If you’re having a mental health issue, you don’t want to describe that in another language, unless you happen to be fluent,” Bull said. “We identify the best English-speaking professionals available.”

Students who go abroad in the fall may not remember all of the resources available for them, as the required pre-departure materials are completed during Spring Quarter, said Julie Friend, NU’s director of global safety and security. Months go by before students are able to utilize the resources they were told about.

“I don’t know how to fix that problem,” Friend said. “I totally understand it, but it creates a huge disconnect.”

NU is able to provide mental health support for students through HTH Worldwide, the international health insurance all students studying abroad are required to have, Friend said.

Kutlas said HTH may have been mentioned in the pre-departure orientation last spring, but she didn’t remember it existed while she was on the program.

Buddy troubles

In one of the students’ apartments, a flat buddy was fired for not doing his job, Zweig said. Before leaving, the Czech student trashed the apartment, ripping out cable cords and taking the Internet box with him, she said.

Administrators did not know what to do about the situation, and the flat buddy was not replaced by a new hire, Zweig said.

Flat buddies who leave near the beginning of a program are replaced by new buddies, CIEE spokeswoman Sarah Day said. If a flat buddy leaves later in the program, someone who is already working as a buddy will take over to help the study abroad students, she said.

Bill Anthony, director of the NU Study Abroad Office, said issues with flat buddies in Prague have previously been reported in program evaluations. As a member of CIEE’s advisory board, he can make recommendations to improve this system, such as suggesting that the flat buddies receive more training, he said.

Zweig noted that only a few students had serious issues with their flat buddies, but she said CIEE did not have a system in place to figure out what to do about a bad flat buddy.

“There wasn’t enough accountability, and they didn’t have enough systems in place if something did go wrong,” she said.

Weinberg junior Sharon Borden said the main issue with CIEE in Prague was the disorganization among administrators.

“At one point, our entire program got emailed everybody’s passport numbers, which is very problematic,” Borden said.

The distribution of passport numbers has never happened before and an apology was sent to all students, Bull said.

“That was highly unusual and something that caught all of our attention because that’s not something we do,” he said.

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