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Is Studying Abroad Safer than Staying at Home?

Studying Abroad Safer than Staying at Home

It seems that every day, we hear news of a recent terror attack. Whether it's an airport bombing in Brussels, a car bomb in Istanbul, or a hostage shooting in a Bangladesh cafe, it can feel like the world is a much more dangerous place. This can make us wonder: is it still worth it to study abroad?

Coming from a student who studied abroad in Europe during the Brussels bombing, the answer is still undoubtedly, unequivocally, and full-heartedly, yes.

It is understandable to have concerns about study abroad due to the rising number of terrorist attacks, especially in Europe, one of the most popular destinations to go overseas. But the probability of being a victim of a terrorist attack isn't -- and shouldn't be -- what scares us, for those odds are negligibly low. Rather, it's the uncertainty and unfamiliarity with this emerging threat that drives our fear. However, while it is important to address the validity of our concerns, we must take into account the empirical evidence.

Is Staying in America Really Safer?

In this confusing era of misunderstood fears and exaggerated media, the real question we have to ask ourselves is, how much is my safety compromised being abroad than being in America?

According to the U.S. State Department, 350 US citizens were killed overseas from terrorist attacks from 2001 to 2013. True, this number is higher than data from previous years, but it's helpful to remember that 3,030 citizens were killed in the US by terrorism during that same period.

In terms of gun violence, most of the US cities we live in are statistically more dangerous than our study abroad destinations. On average, the odds of being killed by gun violence in the US is 1 in 33,000. Compare that with your risk of being killed in a car crash (1 in 19,000) or being struck by lightning (one in 5.5 million). All of these far exceed your risk of dying from terrorism (1 in 20 million).

Of course, it's understandable to be afraid of terrorism, which poses an unknown threat despite its low odds. You may be worried for your own safety or your child's as he or she considers studying abroad. However, we can't ignore this data; we should see it as reassurance that it is still safe to travel. Furthermore, we should also consider that the benefits of study abroad far outweigh the fear of getting hurt while overseas.

Here's my take on it.

My Experience with Study Abroad Safety

Studying Abroad Safer than Staying at Home Edinburgh

I spent the Spring 2016 semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, and prior to my departure, I was ecstatic about the amazing journey that I was about to embark on. I knew about the Paris attacks that happened that last November, but I was also aware that Scotland was known for its unparalleled safety and was not too worried about terrorism ever directly affecting me there. (For the more cautious travelers out there, this might be one of the deciding factors to look for when choosing a study abroad destination.)

The first 2 months went by smoothly, and I traveled to 3 other countries during that time. Then, the Brussels airport was bombed on March 22nd.

Edinburgh is about 500 miles away from Brussels, so I was quite far away from the epicenter of the attack at the time. However, Brussels was also in close proximity to other cities that I planned on traveling to in the coming weeks. I had always been aware of these attacks while in America, and would often share a Facebook post or two to express my solidarity, but I still felt so far removed from the situation that it never really registered with me. Now, while living in a European capital city, I realized that I had no choice but to confront the harsh reality of terrorism, and honestly, it was frightening.

My parents and I had made plans to go to London and Paris over spring break, which happened to be two weeks after the bombings. There was a serious debate over whether or not to cancel these visits since they were in such close proximity to Brussels. When we were considering alternative destinations, though, it was hard because it seemed like the entire continent of Europe seemed vulnerable. A lot my classmates who were also making travel plans for the course break were facing these same dilemmas; some made alternative arrangements, and some stuck with their original itineraries. In the end, my parents and I decided to stick with our original plan. I'm glad I did because I felt safe and secure the entire time.

After the bombings, I definitely noticed an increased security presence in Edinburgh, especially in transportation hubs. Though it initially made me anxious, I felt good knowing that the city is taking the necessary precautions to maintain its status as one of the safest places in Europe. It is truly a wonderful place to live, and I never let the threat of terrorism distort that.

Studying Abroad Still Felt Safe

Studying Abroad Safer than Staying at Home

After Brussels, I still traveled to 5 other countries during my semester, including big cities that are considered terrorist “hotspots” like Barcelona, London, Milan, and Paris. I was expecting to go and see cities on edge, with tourists attractions empty and large gathering areas deserted. Instead, I merely saw both locals and tourists going about their daily lives, trying to return to a sense of normalcy. The lines were still obnoxiously long for the Louvre, London Eye, and Sagrada Familia, even though they have been labeled places where it’s recommended to stay away from. It was empowering to see these places deflated by terrorism start to come back to life.

The overemphasized threat of terrorism should not deter one from going overseas because there are ample precautionary measures that are available to ease your concerns, especially if you travel with a program provider. My program provider, the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, took several measures to ensure the safety of its students.

They required us to submit travel forms whenever we left our host city, which included our method of transport, dates traveling, and who we were going with and their contact information. I also registered with the US Embassy in my host country and the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). I always felt like my safety was a top priority to my program, and the US government has proven itself to go to great lengths to protect its people overseas.

Stay Vigilant, but Get the Most Out of Your Experience

Terrorism should not encourage you to travel less, but it should encourage you to travel smart. Don’t focus so much on the unlikely risk of terrorism that you forget to take note of the more common risks that are more likely to hurt you.

Trust your instincts, and don't do anything you feel uncomfortable with. Share your travel itinerary with those back home and your friends around you. Someone should always know where you are. Take advantage of texting apps and social media to stay connected. These are all things that travelers should be doing even before the threat of terrorism, but now it's even more crucial to have a plan in case things go wrong.

My advice is to remain vigilant and protect yourself, but don’t let your vigilance turn into paranoia. Enjoy your time overseas. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t do it timidly!

Gaining a Global Understanding

Studying Abroad Safer than Staying at Home

When a terrorist strikes, too often the common response in America is to is to generalize the whole ethnicity of the attacker as being guilty of the crime. I had never been overseas prior to my study abroad, so I did not know how other countries felt about terrorism. While overseas, I made friends from Brussels and Istanbul, and several other places, and after getting to know them, taking classes with them, and hanging out with them, I realized we are all a lot more similar than we thought. I firmly believe that if we all took the time to learn about each other before making rash assumptions, then we could take more substantial steps towards creating a better future.

Studying abroad has expanded my global perspective, introduced me to ideas I have never considered, and exposed me to a handful of the beautiful sights and people that are in this world. By meeting other international people, you can become exposed to a more multifaceted worldview, especially concerning terrorism. For example, some countries are not in support of America's hard-line interventionist methods, though America often frames our justification as protecting democratic values. In this age of uncertainty, it is crucial that we engage in these conversations with those are different than us rather than isolating ourselves with the American perspective, which can often be one-sided.

Why You Should Still Study Abroad

Statistically speaking, study abroad does not increase your likelihood of being a victim of terrorist attack. Granted, some places are obviously safer than others, and that may be a deciding factor for you during your travels.

But in this era of vast uncertainty, it's crucial to go out and see the world for yourself and push past those preconceived stereotypes of other countries, especially as a student. Studying abroad is one of the greatest opportunities to take advantage of -- one that most people regret not following through years later. We shouldn't let fear take this experience away from us.

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Photo Credit: Omar Yassen, Pexels, donterase
Photo of Marcus Smith

Marcus is pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science at The University of Iowa. He spent 5 months in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is an avid lover of doner kebabs. Go Hawks!