Studying abroad in conflict zones: Reckless or rewarding?

Some students and academics say their passion for certain subjects outweighs potential risks.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
John Meislin, co-founder of Student Diplomacy Corps, speaks to high school students about to embark on their summer study abroad programs on June 22, 2015, in New York City. Student Diplomacy Corps is a non-profit organization offering scholarships and opportunities for students in the United States to study abroad.

Should universities support students and faculty when they travel to dangerous countries for research or study abroad programs?

Some say their passion may overpower their concerns.

The potential to help activists and scholars outweighs the risks posed by an unstable country, argues Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor. Next month, he will lead a conference in Ukraine, even though the US State Department has flagged the former Soviet republic as dangerous for travel. The summit will focus on civics, in part because the country exemplifies the struggles of a fledgling democracy.

But the risks are real.

In Egypt, a protester fatally stabbed Andrew Pochter, a student at Ohio’s Kenyon College, who was abroad for the summer of 2013.

Mr. Pochter, who traveled to Egypt through a private education group, was killed during clashes between supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi, then the president of Egypt, The New York Times reported.

When countries are perceived as conflict zones, their popularity as study-abroad sites for American students inevitably declines, notes the AP.

Egypt, long a magnet for Arabic-language students, saw the number of US students plummet after the 2011 revolution. At the same time, similar programs in Morocco and Jordan surged.

Of course, some students don’t need a passport to travel towards danger.

This spring, Trey Yingst, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at American University, skipped most of his final exams to work as a journalist in Baltimore, in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

According to Poynter, Yingst was swarmed by rioters every time he raised his camera, many of whom were armed with hammers and 40-ounce bottles.

Yingst captured images, interviews, and videos that were later used by the media, including ABC News and CNN.

“I was sitting in the library studying for finals and I just realized I had to get there,” Yingst told Poynter. “I thought ‘I can’t be a student right now. I need to be a journalist.’ ”

But Yingst wasn't studying or working under his college’s purview, as study abroad programs usually require students do.

Most colleges rely on outside providers, reports the Boston Globe, and many students enroll directly in foreign universities. Colleges say they regularly evaluate the programs, both for academic quality and student safety.

Many schools prohibit using funds for students or faculty who travel to areas where the State Department has issued a travel warning, the AP notes.  

However, political strife isn't the most common risk students and other travelers face.

"While it’s common for students and parents to focus their concerns on things like terrorism or civil unrest," says the website of Northwestern University’s Office of Global Health and Safety, "it’s more likely for students to be hurt in situations like traffic accidents or while swimming," which are the leading causes of death for American students abroad.

In February, Julia Lee, a Tufts junior, was killed in a car accident in New Zealand. She was about to begin a study-abroad program at the University of Auckland.

The Boston Globe reports, "most colleges strongly recommend that students not drive, particularly in countries with left-side driving, but understand students may choose otherwise."

Property Casualty 360° notes additional risks for students include travel-related illnesses, natural disasters, insufficient medical care, and assault.

Northwestern University recommends students pay attention to their instincts and identify ways to blend in so they aren’t targeted as tourists.

According to a report by The Institute of International Education, 289,408 US students studied abroad for credit received back home during the 2013-2014 academic year – a two percent increase from the previous academic year.

When it comes to dangers that students may experience abroad, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers notes the relevance of mental health: 88 percent of US university counseling center say they find  an increasing number of students with severe psychological problems on their campuses. NAFSA urges study-abroad offices to develop partnerships with counseling centers and receive training on how to talk to students about maintaining good mental health while abroad.

Despite the risks involved, study-abroad programs remain popular for US college students.

"There will always be risks, but I think there is a benefit to experiencing and being able to sense firsthand what's going on," Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, told the AP. "It's important to be there."

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