If you've already started looking into study abroad programs, more likely than not the word safety has come out of your mouth, your families, or someone within the abroad organizations or maybe the US Government.
This isn't about foreign areas being “dangerous” for Americans. It is about Americans being dangerous to themselves.
According to studies in the past few years, the threat to security during study abroad has become one of the top ten concerns internationally when picking a program.
But, truthfully, staying safe while studying abroad in Europe isn't as difficult as your schools may make it seem. Read on for our top tips on staying safe while studying abroad in Europe:
1. If You're Going to Drink, Be Responsible
Americans make some pretty silly mistakes while studying in Europe, one of the most dangerous is drinking too much. While we don't want to encourage drinking on your study abroad trip, we do want to recognize that it happens and drinking too much is one of the times where students are most at risk.
You may have had alcohol before, but chances are you weren’t in a bar, restaurant, or any public setting. Drinking outside of a frat house basement poses different security risks if done irresponsibly. It's also just not what local students are doing. Over drinking is both unsafe and culturally insensitive.
The first week that you are abroad and out at night, take a look at the scene around you. How many non-Americans are passing out in bar bathrooms? Throwing up on the street? Leaving their credit cards/cell phones/jackets/etc. at the club? How many are climbing historic structures just to get a damn selfie? FEW to NONE. Yes, of course, there are crazy partiers in every culture, but American students make this a too common occurrence.
Getting drunk or blacking out while being in public isn't safe. It puts you at risk for theft, injury, and worse. But really, this isn't about foreign areas being “dangerous” for Americans. It is about Americans being dangerous to themselves. After living abroad in a city known for its American student population and dealing directly with student issues, I can honestly tell you that 90% of the safety “problems” that come up are because the student was completely out-of-their-skull-drunk.
Whenever you're doing something questionable abroad, ask yourself that question: would I feel safe doing this at home? And if not, what would I do?
Solution? Just be better. If you drink, drink in moderation. You don't have to have a shot and a beer – even if it comes with it. No one is saying that you HAVE to do anything. You are your own person. This is a self-growth period in your life. Use it wisely.
2. If You Walk Home Alone at Night, Be Smart
A basic safety tip you'll hear often is "don't go out at night alone". In general, being out after 2am is far less safe than being out during the day, and having someone there with you is safer, but it's not always a possibility. Sometimes, you have an early class to get up for, and your friends don't. Sometimes, you're just tired and don't want to be out anymore.
For those scenarios where you do decide to go home alone at night, I'll just say: be smart about it. Walk the most public streets of the city even if it takes you longer to get home. Be aware of your surroundings. Make sure you know where you're going. Take a taxi if it makes you feel more comfortable. Most likely, you will be fine.
Then again, just like you wouldn’t feel extremely comfortable walking around parts of Boston or Houston, you probably won't elsewhere in the world either. Whenever you're doing something questionable abroad, ask yourself that question: would I feel safe doing this at home? And if not, what would I do? – There’s your answer.
3. Blend in and Just Say "no" to Gypsies and Street Sellers
Perhaps you have heard of gypsies (their real title is Romani) before or listened to stories from your friends that have been abroad about the street vendors and beggars.
These people are people too, but unfortunately, have been known to pickpocket. Their targets are tourists -- not locals. So if you dress to fit in, and don't get entrapped by street performers (the crowds on the streets are huge opportunities). But if you are on a tour or look particularly touristy -- keep your hand on your bag, etc. Pickpockets are in every country. They just come in different forms.
The most important thing is that you don’t have to be scared, nor do you have to be a terrible person. If someone is attempting to sell you something, be polite, use manners and simply tell them no. Eventually, they will understand. Same with begging. Be overly aware of your surroundings, don’t be disrespectful, and continue on with your day.
4. Friendships Abroad: Give Everyone Benefit of the Doubt
We all heard the phrase never talk to strangers – but you are going to meet a hell of a lot of strangers when you’re abroad because it is a new place! This law cannot apply and honestly, most people are just as friendly and happy as you are. Instead of paying for ridiculous and costly internet for GPSing directions, why not ask locals instead.
One of the easiest ways to stay safe: understand what's going on around you.
I have seen local Italians attempting to help Americans on the street only to be screamed at (not exaggerating) to get away. This. Isn’t. Necessary. Instead of completely refusing to speak to people, simply give them the benefit of the doubt first. We are all adults – we should understand if there is a creepy feeling in a conversation or coming from a group of people.
Go with your (sober) gut and make friends – talk to the people sitting next to you on the bus, give that person that had enough confidence to come up and talk to you the benefit of the doubt and see if you can make a new best friend. Not to mention, having local friends will help you know what they do to stay safe -- then use those tactics yourself.
5. Learn the Language and Culture
One of the easiest ways to stay safe: understand what's going on around you. This means learning the language if you're in a non-English speaking country, but also the culture. It'll help you better identify odd behavior, but also properly identify totally normal and safe behavior of others.
Not to mention, it'll help you read signs, bus schedules, or ask for directions to keep you from wandering off somewhere dodgy. Bridge the language and culture gap and avoid bad situations (e.g. the Americans screaming at helpful Italians scenario mentioned above).
6. Remember that Life Abroad Isn't As Different as Life at Home
Even though you'll get briefed on any possible thing that could go wrong while abroad, I need you to stop all of those thoughts and remember one thing: wherever you’re studying is this same planet, just with different people -- but they are people. Just like you and me and your Mom and that guy that ripped you off in New York a few years ago.
There are good and bad people all over the world in all cultures. Isn’t that why you want to go abroad -- to meet these new people and see different cultures? Then why do your programs want you to be so petrified with fear that you miss out on those opportunities?
7. Know What to Do in Cases of Emergencies
Sometimes, things beyond your control happen. It sucks, but it sucks less if you have a plan in place for dealing with it. A good, general plan to have is:
- Always have the local version of 911, your local consulate, and your study abroad contact's number in your phone.
- Know the number of a taxi company or have Uber on your phone (it works abroad) so you can get a taxi if you're stranded somewhere.
- Keep a copy of your passport and bank information saved digitally / in the hands of your parents / trusted family member just in case you lose the originals.
- Get travel insurance -- it's not just for health issues. It also covers you if you need an emergency evacuation, your flight was canceled, your bags lost, someone steals your electronics, or any number of unforeseen issues abroad. WorldNomads is one travel insurance provider you can look at.
- Register with the State Department to be notified of nation-wide emergencies.
- Text someone back home every time you go somewhere new / outside your host city.
8. Don't Let Fear Stop You from Experiencing Your Host Culture
Through the process of studying abroad, you're going to get security talk after security talk that covers everything from pepper spray to rape and ‘how to deal’ with ‘everyday’ situations that you may or may not come across throughout your time abroad. I've seen everything from advice like carrying a money pouch worn under your clothing (always) to never making eye contact with strangers.
The consulate may come in with frightening facts and figures on how many American students died, were robbed, or sexually assaulted in the past years. At the end of orientation, you've been made into a walking robot filled with homegrown fear of this place that you were once so excited to experience.
Open your eyes, mouth, and hands in your new home and you'll be surprised as to how welcomed and safe you will feel.
Culture? Out the window. You’ll now only want to walk in a group of all of your best friends to the one bar where there are no “creepy” people. What I want you do to right now is stop that mentality -- and then fix it.
Yes, you'll have to be smart and stay safe, but don't let fear overcome you to the point where you aren't experiencing or enjoying your host culture. Don't start assuming that just because you're in a different country, danger suddenly lurks behind every corner (I mean, it's not like the U.S. has a super low murder rate or anything...) Embrace, don't fear, the differences.
Be Smart. Stay Safe.
What you need to come out with after reading this article is that going overseas is not that different from walking out of your house, your dorm, or partying in the nearest city in your state. It just takes a little time and motivation to understand a different culture and embrace it instead of shunning it.
Open your eyes, mouth, and hands in your new home and you’ll be surprised as to how welcomed and safe you will feel. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even feel safer there than you did at home.
Just listen to your gut. Don't get blackout drunk. Know where you're going. Have local friends and a good plan of action. Be smart, and you’ll be on your way to understanding this crazy world we live in just a little bit better.