Current events haven't exactly left us feeling great about study abroad safety. From political instability to natural disasters, how can you stay safe while studying abroad? How can you protect yourself from dangers lurking overseas? What if the zombie apocalypse happens when you’re overseas, and you’re trapped there forever?
First of all, let’s all take a deep breath. Hundreds of thousands of students head abroad every year, and the overwhelming majority of them never experience anything more dangerous than developing a severe gelato dependency. Studying abroad doesn’t necessarily imply that your life is in any more danger than usual, unless you’re heading to a particularly volatile region, so there’s no reason to panic.
Providers have well-developed policies in place to ensure that you’re protected.
That being said, there are some risks that do come with the territory, and it’s important to be informed about them while you’re deciding where to study abroad, as well as during your pre-departure preparations and throughout your time in your host country.
Luckily, you’re not out there on your own. Universities and study abroad program providers have years of experience making sure students stay as safe as possible. If you (or your parents) feel concerned about you spending a semester in another country far, far away, let's put some of those fears at rest with a closer look at the behind the scenes work that universities and study abroad programs do to promote study abroad safety.
First: What Should You Actually Be Concerned About?
Like any thrilling adventure, studying abroad comes with its own set of risks (though we’d argue they’re heavily outweighed by the rewards). Many are the same ones that you’d encounter traveling anywhere -- they just apply over a longer period of time than your average vacation.
"Most students have a very positive experience during study abroad. However, just as in the U.S., health and safety challenges may arrive abroad. Looking closely at issues in advance can make a significant impact on avoiding negative situations and responding effectively," says Gary Rhodes, Director of the Center for Global Education at California State University at Dominguez Hills. The Center, a national resource for international education, hosts the SAFETI Clearinghouse and offers resources for students about health and safety during study abroad.
For the most part, your biggest concerns should be around petty crime (pickpocketing or scams). There are steps you can take to make yourself less of a target, but remember that these types of dangers are present for everybody in a given city -- locals are often just as likely to be at risk as tourists, so these are more general risks to be aware of, rather than something that applies specifically to foreign students.
Though dangers like pickpocketing or credit card theft are present all around the world, different regions do see higher potential for different kinds of travel risks. We talked to Corey Crane, a State Department veteran and the founder of travel safety training company Sarus Global, to get a better sense of some of the more common dangers in popular study abroad regions:
In the last few years, European countries like France and Belgium have seen increased incidence of terrorist attacks, though they've been mostly concentrated in dense urban centers, especially around transit points. “If you’re studying abroad at some college 20 minute outside of Brussels, you’re probably going to be fine,” explains Crane. The other safety concerns in large Western European cities fall under “typical” travel dangers: bags getting stolen, credit card scams, and so on.
Middle East and Northern Africa
This region sees lower rates of petty crime like pickpocketing, but a higher potential for anti-American rhetoric and actions, as well as an increased possibility of sexual assault in some areas.
Major concerns here would mostly center on robbery and theft, including armed robbery, and higher likelihood of sexual harassment and/or assault. Car crashes are another safety concern -- use good judgment when taking public buses.
East and Southeast Asia
Petty crime is generally lower here, except in touristy areas of some major urban centers; according to Crane, the real danger comes from technology. Countries like China are particularly fond of hacking devices or accounts and attempting to access personal information via cyberthreats.
Crane recommends steering clear of using cyber cafes or public WiFi to access sensitive personal information like bank accounts or medical records and bringing a phone from home to ensure it's clean -- which is good advice to heed anywhere in the world, really.
Due in part to the presence of armed gangs and drug-related violence in some cities and along regional trafficking routes, Latin American countries tend to see higher rates of crimes like theft and armed robbery. These crimes often take place on public transportation, so exercise caution when using public transit (just as you would anywhere else), and keep valuables out of sight as much as possible.
No matter where you go, Crane recommends a few basic precautionary measures, including following State Department or other government warnings via social media, keeping up with current events and maintaining a consistent check-in schedule with a family member or close friend back at home so that someone knows more or less where you are at all times.
How Universities and Providers Keep Students Safe
All that being said, the reality is that you're unlikely to encounter anything more serious than the occasional pickpocket slicing bags open on the Metro. However, in the event that you do find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster, medical epidemic, massive political upheaval, or other emergency, it's reassuring to know that your study abroad program is prepared for these situations.
Here are a few of the ways program providers and institutions do their best to keep students safe, healthy and happy abroad.
Laying out the risks ahead of time
If there are any safety risks to be aware of prior to departure or signing up for the program, your university / study abroad program will inform you of these.
"They should do what they can to inform students and parents about what the potential issues and risks and challenges are, so that participants can include those issues in their decision-making process when choosing a program and understand what they can do to avoid health and safety challenges and be prepared to respond," says Rhodes.
Giving country-specific orientation
According to Crane, safety training during orientation or pre-departure is one of the most important things providers should do to ensure student safety. He founded Sarus Global after watching several friends go on mission trips or sign up to volunteer overseas and get sent off without adequate safety training.
“That’s a huge problem that really needs addressing, and it comes up in study abroad too,” he says. A good study abroad program will train students on country-specific safety.
Orientations are hugely important for your health and safety.
These sessions provide an opportunity for knowledgeable staff and local experts to give you the information you need to stay alert, informed and safe in your new city, as well as to introduce you to any dangers or concerns specific to your location. These introductory sessions can stretch from 1-3 weeks, depending on your program.
"Students should be treated like adults in terms of their response to health and safety issues," adds Rhodes. "However, for them to be in the position of making adult decisions, more information needs to be given to them, as well as resources to understand the issues and challenges they may face. The idea is to create a balance between all the potential positive impacts of study abroad while balancing it with health and safety and other challenges."
Having a code of conduct
Contrary to what movies might have you think, studying abroad is not an excuse for students to engage in dangerous behavior without any consequences. In fact, that attitude is exactly how students abroad acquire a bad reputation in some host countries, so don’t contribute to that negative stereotype.
As program provider CIEE reminds participants, the behavior you take for granted at home may be inappropriate or even offensive in your host country, so don’t assume your foreign passport gives you free reign to act however you want.
"We are challenged by limited expertise of many students and parents (and some faculty and staff) about the world outside the US," says Rhodes. "Most stories in the media are about crises abroad and our K-12 education does not necessarily highlight a deep understanding of the world outside the US. Connecting this to health and safety issues, this means that institutions do need to provide education and information to educate students about the world outside of the US."
This information can include training about local social norms and behavior, as well as a crash course in local history and politics to help you avoid accidentally insulting a whole political party or religious group.
You’ll also be required to sign a code of conduct form or. You don’t need to read all the legalese (though it’s never a bad idea to be informed!), but it’s important to know that as a study abroad participant affiliated with a US-based university, you’ll be expected to adhere to both the local laws and norms of your host country, as well as your own university’s code of conduct and any additional rules imposed by your program provider. You might also have to agree to other rules put in place to keep students safe, like not driving a car while abroad.
Keeping tack of students' weekend and break travel
Program providers will often ask students to fill out some kind of travel form and submit it to staff before heading out of town, so that in-country supervisors know where all participants are at all times. This isn’t because they want to live vicariously through you, or so they can give your coordinates to the NSA (probably) -- it’s a safety precaution that ensures they can find you quickly and efficiently if there’s any kind of emergency.
Travel forms can seem like a hassle, but it's important that you take them seriously.
If you happen to be spending the weekend in a small mountain town that’s suddenly struck by a mudslide, it’s important that program staff know you’re there so they can take action immediately and start trying to contact you to determine what kind of assistance you might need.
This information can be absolutely vital in the rare case of an evacuation order: if your program staff needs to locate you so your embassy can help get you out of the country, they need to know if you’re a 10-hour bus ride away so they can start planning how to get you out.
Travel forms can seem like a hassle or the program provider version of helicopter parenting, especially if you're just going a few hours down the coast for a long weekend, but they suddenly become a lot less inconvenient in the event of an emergency, so it’s important that you take them seriously.
Providing vetted housing options
If you’ve ever looked for an apartment or roommate on Craigslist, you know how hard it can be to find a clean, normal person who washes their dishes and doesn’t steal your leftovers from the fridge. This process is hard enough in your home city and native language -- now imagine trying to do it in a country you’ve never visited or a language you don’t fully understand!
Living with total strangers can be a valuable educational experience, but it can also expose you to all kinds of risks, from health and hygiene to housing instability. This is exactly why study abroad providers that include homestay options vet each homestay family to make sure you’ll be safe, well-fed, treated fairly, and not banished to a Harry Potter-esque cupboard under the stairs.
For those that don't include a homestay option, they'll have trustworthy housing options to suggest study abroad students. If students don't want to opt in for any of these, they don't have to -- we also have a list of housing providers and search engines for student accommodation.
Having emergency plans in place
No matter where they operate, study abroad program providers will have clearly established emergency action plans and step-by-step procedures to be followed in the event of an emergency. These cover both internal functions (what staff should do to communicate with each other and with students) as well as external responsibilities (cooperating with local law enforcement, in-country embassy officials, and US-based staff).
These plans, especially if they're intended mostly for staff, won't necessarily be shared in their entirety with students, but you should know that they're in place and can be applied whenever necessary. Parents may be asked to sign up to be part of an emergency phone tree or other response as part of this plan.
Your program provider should provide a list of pre-approved medical providers in your location.
Rhodes recommends that organizations and individual students test out their emergency action plans after arriving in country to make sure they work smoothly and tailor them to respond to concerns specific to that particular location (earthquakes, ocean undertow, locating fire exits in buildings, safety when going out at night, etc). This may be a part of orientation.
If you are curious about what these types of emergency protocols look like, IES Abroad has a great example of an extensive organizational emergency plan, as well as an explanation of some of the processes that went into developing it. The Center for Global Education also has a sample emergency action plan framework that outlines basic steps to follow.
Keeping parents informed
In general, no news is good news. If a study abroad program / university is dealing with a serious safety threat or a student is harmed somehow, they will notify parents or legal guardians as soon as they possibly can.
As a parent, it might be tempting to call a study abroad provider if you haven't heard from your student in a week or more. Parents, try to get in touch with another parent or one of their friends before pinging their university / study abroad provider and check up on them if you can.
They'll have recommended medical providers and contacts for doctors in country
Like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry, trying to find a good doctor when you’re already dealing with a medical emergency is a terrible idea. This is especially true if you’re in a location that may not necessarily have the same standards for medical care that you’d immediately have access to at home.
Fortunately, responsible program providers have already done the dirty work for you and scouted out the best hospitals, clinics, or medical providers in your location. You should receive a list of these recommended services either before or during orientation, and it’s a good idea to keep them in an accessible place just in case you ever need them.
If you do end up needing to visit a doctor for any reason, referring to this pre-approved list will ensure you get the care you need, instead of waking up to find yourself covered in bloodsucking leeches to cure you of the flu.
You should also consider learning some basic medical and health vocabulary so you don't have to resort to charades to tell the nurse what's wrong with you.
Essential Study Abroad Safety Tips
"There are no minimum standards that are followed by every college, university, or study abroad provider," Rhodes reminds us. "It is important for students and parents to take a significant amount of time to research the programs they are participating in, and to take the time and effort to figure out what it will take to become a responsible adult in terms of being prepared to avoid and respond to health and safety issues and incidents abroad."
It's reassuring to know that your university and program providers are doing everything possible to ensure your safety at all times while you’re abroad, but that doesn’t mean you should sit back and expect everything to be done for you -- you're a responsible, informed adult, remember? Here are some easy steps you can take on your own to make sure you’re contributing to the effort to keep you safe:
- Don’t carry valuables if it’s not necessary. If it is necessary, keep them on your body and out of sight -- jackets with inside pockets are your BFFs here.
- Drink responsibly. While we don't want to promote college drinking, we do acknowledge that study abroad students will find themselves with suddenly easy access to alcohol. Do like the locals do and consume alcohol in moderation. Nothing good comes from getting blackout abroad or at home.
- Do carry a copy of your passport. It won't get you on a flight, but it will work as a form of identification in some circumstances and help your embassy replace it if it's stolen.
- Always make sure someone knows where you are, especially if you’re out of town or traveling alone. This will help people find you more quickly in the event of an emergency, and avoid starting a false panic.
- Register with the US Embassy's STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) program (or your home country embassy), especially if you'll be in one country for more than a few weeks.
- Don't shortchange yourself on travel insurance -- with luck, you won't need it, but if you do end up in an emergency, you'll be glad to have it.
- Read the local news: you don’t want to be surprised by violent anti-government protests, roads cut off because of flooding or shops closed for a weeklong holiday break. Plus, staying up to speed on current events gives you more to talk about with the locals!
- Identify a safe place you can go in the event of an emergency, or if at any point you don’t feel safe in your place of residence.
Your Program's Got Your Back
Even though study abroad safety is a legitimate and big concern for both students and parents, thousands of students go abroad each year without a hitch. Keep in mind basic safety precautions, be responsible, and know that your study abroad program wants to keep you safe as well!
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