I wanted to go to India when I was in college, but at the tender age of 19, I was too nervous to seriously consider applying for a study abroad program there. It seemed too far away and because I didn’t know enough about the country or culture, it felt overwhelming. I was concerned about where I’d live and how I’d be received by the locals, and wondered if I would be “safe.” I did get to India many years later, ironically traveling to several cities alone as a woman– and it was one of the most memorable cultural experiences of my life. I didn’t feel nervous or unsafe as a woman traveling solo. I did my homework while planning my sojourn, knowing where to go, how to dress, and how to ask for help if I needed it. Yet, according to the World Terrorist Index, India was ranked sixth in the world for terrorist activity in 2014.
We live in a world that highlights horrific acts of terror on the nightly news, conditioning us to imagine fear at every turn. Many parents and students from the United States don’t realize is that being involved in a terrorist incident is statistically highly unlikely, yet safety from such attacks becomes a topic of conversation more frequently than one can imagine in a study abroad advising session. Statistically, a US citizen has a similar (or lower) chance of being killed in a terrorist attack than the following occurrences:
- Being killed by a piece of furniture in your home
- Dying in a heat wave
- Being struck and killed by lightening
As a seasoned traveler and advisor, the metamorphic transformation that I see happening through education abroad, particularly when students go off the beaten path (e.g. not Western Europe), demands discussion. How can we encourage more students to participate in all that these countries and cultures have to offer, despite an assumption about lack of safety? And how do we address the real or implied reasons to be fearful?
Here are some considerations for education travel abroad:
- Recognize that safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere in the world.
The reality is that no one can guarantee safety at home or abroad. What we can do, with intention, is to learn about the local customs and norms to have a better understanding of what is happening around us in any new environs and choose to be aware, not paranoid. After all, educational travel abroad is about getting outside of our comfort zones.
For example, I’m sure that if I had studied abroad in Ecuador, I likely would have been told by the program administrators and faculty not to ride in the back of a pick-up truck because it would be unsafe. When I lived there for two months, I made a point to do just that. Why? Not because I like to live on the edge and thought it was terribly risky of me, but rather because it was what people there do – and the danger of doing so at that moment seemed negligible (and it was). It gave me a different perspective, I learned, and I got home in one piece.
- Read reviews by students who have been there
I’m fascinated by how students perceive their time abroad, especially when they challenge themselves to go to places that are less traditional for educational travel. One of the best ways to do this is to read reviews at Studyabroad101.com to observe true accounts and perspectives of what is happening on the ground.
I really appreciated this student’s viewpoint of time spent in Lebanon, a country that despite offering study abroad opportunities in English, still reminds people of my generation (e.g. parents of college age students) of the 16 year Lebanese Civil War that ended over a decade ago:
“The same amount of danger that exists anywhere else in the world exists here. It’s just that the type of danger is different. I remember someone asking me if I was afraid to go to school in America because I might be shot. I asked if they feared getting on a bus for it might explode.”
This mirrors the feedback I received from a millennial who recently taught English in Lebanon for several years. She cherished her time there, didn’t feel unsafe – even taking a morning solo run in Beirut as part of her daily routine.
If you’re thinking about going abroad, check the Safety sections of each student’s program review (like this one in Cameroon). They will rate safety by the number of stars (1 – 5), typically commenting in the Safety section, and occasionally in the “A Look Back” section.
- Know the facts about risk
My colleague, former FBI Agent Steve Moore, has told me more than once that road accidents are the biggest risks for US Americans travelers abroad. The Association for International Road Travel affirms that road crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for healthy Americans traveling abroad and young people, ages 15 – 24. Joining the Association for International Road Travel is an affordable place to start, as they offer data on road safety by country.
Excessive alcohol consumption is a growing problem for this same age group IN the United States, but it is compounded by laws abroad that often allow for young people to drink alcohol at a younger age and often at a higher percent of pure alcohol content. Fortunately, SAFETI offers an alcohol awareness video , available “by suggested donation”, to facilitate dialogue about this important topic. SAFETI also offers free handouts for administrators and students on the topic.
Any organization sending students abroad should plan to partner with campus or regional health care facilities to educate about the specific risks of alcohol consumption. Combined with a clear policy about expectations of behavior, this is key to minimizing the middle of the night panic phone calls about a program participant’s potential alcohol poisoning or worse.
- Remember Culture!
Culture impacts behavior. Understanding the “whys” of other people’s behaviors is essential to feeling and staying safe. Morocco offers a terrific example of the need to consider culture when contemplating safety; this review of a program in Morocco is illuminating:
It takes some adjusting of behavior to feel safe in Rabat, mostly because of the harassment and unwanted attention. It is also not safe to go out at night in most areas, unless you plan on taking a taxi home. I had my cell phone stolen off a bus in one instance. However, in Morocco, this is par for the course and Rabat is actually a fairly safe city once I adapted to the standards of appropriate behavior.
To have a better understanding of this feedback, I asked a friend who lived in Morocco for several years and served there through Peace Corps for her cultural insights and personal story. This is what she had to say:
I won’t soon forget the first day when my parents came to visit me in Morocco. We were in a mid-sized city and I lost a small purse with my phone, identity card, money, social security card, and other important information. When I called my cell phone, a gentleman who found it – a taxi driver – picked us up, took us to his house where he left the purse for safekeeping, gave it back with everything still in it, and then drove us to the place where he had found it. While I can’t say this would happen in every city in Morocco, it was a wonderful introduction to the country for my parents. I am often asked about safety and can truthfully say it’s no less safe than anywhere else in the world. In particular, tourists or foreigners are looked out for by the police and other officials. Because tourism is such an important part of the Moroccan economy, the government is incredibly conscientious to be sure travelers have positive and safe experiences.
When considering culture, we are given clarifying information about behavioral norms that guides us in our interactions. As a result, we may feel more aware and therefore secure in new surroundings. For example, this young woman’s evaluation of her study abroad program in Morocco references “harassment and unwanted attention” – yet this is something that can be explained by culture. (You can read a complete cultural analysis about it here.) It is key to remember that culture lends information about behaviors of a group of people, but there are individuals within every culture, which reminds us that one incident of petty theft is not representative of an entire country.
Knowing cultural norms can prevent skewed perceptions of safety. Ideally, program administrators and faculty are spending more time on cultural competency to empower travelers to be more aware, respectful, and self-assured in country. Looking for another resource on culture? Better Abroad is a great portal to understanding the impact of culture on the educational experience abroad.
- Challenge stereotypes at every turn
One of the most profound conversations I had in India took place between me and an 8 year old boy in the holy city of Varansi. When he learned that I was from the United States, he asked me where my gun was. It was a reality check for me. I had been smacked in the face, verbally, with a stereotype of my country – that we are all gun toting beings, who value packing a pistol as a means to independence and safety. It took some time for me to convince this young boy that I didn’t even think I knew anyone from my country who owned a gun and that I had never even seen one with the exception of police and hunters. His perception came from American films – where violence is glorified. Our conversation encouraged me to challenge my assumptions about other places, and to reflect on those of my own country.
Before traveling, make a list of stereotypes about the country you’re heading to. Then task yourself to learn about your host country before departing – by reading, watching appropriate documentaries, doing informational interviews with people from that country in your home country, and reading the news online via another country’s online account. You’ll learn a lot about where stereotypes come from and how to combat them before jumping head first into the “fear” zone unnecessarily. Next, make a list of what attributes someone from another country might associate with Americans. This may include things like loud, gun toting, violent, sexually promiscuous, and wealthy. Do you agree with the list of stereotypes? Where do you think they come from and how do you think they impact interactions between people that can lead to unsafe situations?
I think back to my younger self, a girl who wanted to escape to India and see the Taj Mahal, and to better understand the diverse cuisine and spirituality. I wish I could tell her that fear is really a limiting word that we plant in our minds, and they it can take root and prevent a lot of beautiful experiences in life. I wish I had access to this student’s review of a program in Bangalore, which mirrors my adult experience in India (although I’d substitute the word “are quite wild” for “follow less rules”):
Beggars frequently come and ask for money. But beyond that, the violence level in Bangalore is far less than it is in US cities. Guns hardly exist among the public, and the people are not generally violent. The most unsafe thing in Bangalore is honestly crossing the road – because traffic patterns are quite wild.
With these handful of safety tips in mind, how will you reassess where is safe to experience education abroad? Where will you not only imagine going, but ACTUALLY going and writing about to your younger self in the future?
Missy Gluckmann is the Founder of Melibee Global, which aims to elevate the discussion about education abroad, culture, diversity and the lifelong path to global citizenship by offering trailblazing tools, speakers and professional development for the global education and travel communities. Raised in New York, Missy has lived abroad three times and traveled to dozens of countries. Missy currently resides in North Carolina and experiences culture shock there on a daily basis! She can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.