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Should Your Kid Study Abroad in an ISIS World?

How to help your twentysomething stay safe overseas

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

The death of a 23-year-old Cal State Long Beach student during the Nov. 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris shocked her friends, saddened fellow Americans and has shaken parents of study-abroad students everywhere plus parents whose kids are considering taking college classes overseas.

Nohemi Gonzalez, a junior from El Monte, Calif., had gone to Paris for a semester of study at the Strate School of Design. As she sat with friends at Le Petit Cambodge restaurant on that fateful Friday night, she was shot — the first American fatality identified in the six separate, but coordinated, attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. Fortunately, all the other students survived.

If you're a parent of an undergrad who wants to study abroad, should you permit it under the circumstances, especially now that the U.S. State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert until February 2016? It can be a difficult decision.

Study abroad for credit by American students has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from about 130,000 students in 1998-99 to more than 300,000 in 2013-14, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.

Millennials have such a global perspective that they’ve been called the Study Abroad Generation or “First Globals.” They see their lives as public, globally connected and continent-spanning in ways that were unimagined before the Internet, cheap travel and surging study abroad programs. Their parents may have backpacked around Europe in their twenties, but these young people act like international citizens whose planet is their playing field.

Knowing that globalization has transformed the world, emerging adults increasingly seek out the skills and values that studying or working abroad can provide. One such student is 27-year-old Elanna Mariniello, who studied at the Universita di Firenze in Italy during her junior year at Sarah Lawrence, and then, for her first job out of college, helped other students find internships arround the world through Intrax Cultural Exchange. Among the many benefits she experienced and talks about with future students are “learning language and intercultural skills that are increasingly in demand in our global society, broadening our perspective on the world and building a strong personal confidence and sense of self.”

During her own semester in Florence, Mariniello created close relationships with her host family, prepared herself for future work on multicultural teams — and had an unforgettable adventure.

Her best advice for other students: Don’t hold back from studying abroad even in a difficult world environment, but go with either a program or person you trust.

Although it is impossible to prepare for random acts of violence like the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, all the study abroad advisers we interviewed for this article agreed that there are many steps students can take to help stay safe.

“There are risks everywhere," says Daniel Obst of the Institute of International Education, "but the benefits greatly outweigh the risks as long as students are prepared.”

That means knowing the local culture and customs, thinking ahead, staying alert, using good common sense and making smart decisions. It also means staying away from vulnerable places and circumstances, keeping aware of the world situation through media reports and State Department advisories and staying in contact with local study abroad advisers.


Tips for Students

Here are additional tips to share with your student to help him or her stay safe abroad:

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Use a map to familiarize yourself with the layout of your host city and country. Take some time to learn the nearest metro stops and bus/trolley routes. Familiarize yourself with the local currency. Walk at your own pace, but look alert and purposeful.
  • Regularly review the U.S. Department of State travel information for the study location. Do this, too, for any destinations you plan to visit during program breaks or weekends.
  • Register with the U.S. Department of State STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) online registration.
  • Locate the nearest U.S. Embassy in the city or cities you will visit.
  • Carry the contact information for your study abroad program, advisers and local emergency services at all times.
  • Always have a cell phone that works abroad so the local staff can reach you, particularly during an emergency. Consider buying an International SIM card ($20 to $40) for access to Internet everywhere, including Google maps and Google translation.

Tips for Parents

A couple of tips apply to parents, too:

  • Make copies of all important documents, such as your child’s passport, visa, itinerary and credit cards. Keep contact info for the student advisers as well.
  • Have a plan for immediate communication. Make sure you have a good understanding of how to reach your student at the program site and when he/she is traveling and that you have clear expectations about how closely your student will be in touch with you.

Study abroad can be the experience of a lifetime, opening up emerging adults’ eyes to a different part of the world and giving them an all-important understanding of global diversity. By encouraging these reasonable precautions, parents can enhance the likelihood that the study abroad experience will be unforgettable in all the best ways.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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