With the visitation of terrorism to U.S. soil, the war in Iraq and sharpened security concerns, Americans are thinking long and hard about traveling overseas. But more and more college students are opting to travel, taking advantage of programs that allow them to study abroad. Administrators of these programs say student interest has actually increased since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Guilan Wang, director of international education at Central Michigan University, reports record numbers of study-abroad applications, in spite of the outbreak of war in Iraq and the specter of SARS in Asia.
Wang says no study-abroad program has ever been canceled due to war. This does not mean that students have not been asked to leave certain countries if the danger becomes acute. Most colleges adhere to the State Department’s travel warnings and worldwide cautions when making decisions about whether to suspend study in certain countries.
Administrators must still overcome the fears of students, and more often, the students’ parents. These fears are often centered more on the plane trip than the study site itself.
Oakland University’s study-abroad director, Margaret Pigott, says she attempts to assuage fear with fact. She reminds students and parents that there is a U.S. marshal on every flight and all baggage is checked thoroughly. Pigott feels that students understand there is as much of a threat of violence in the United States as there is abroad.
“The greatest threat to students anywhere in the world,” she says, “is the police threat during a protest march. We ask students to be aware that violence begets violence and to stay away from it.”
There is only so much that can be done to protect students once they have begun their journeys.
George Klein, study-abroad director at Eastern Michigan University, advises students to keep telltale signs of their nationality inconspicuous.
“Given the likelihood of increased anti-American sentiments abroad,” he says, “a very high priority is keeping a low profile while abroad, not advertising through clothing and behavior the fact that students are American, and staying away from gathering places associated with Americans, such as McDonalds, Hard Rock Cafés, etc.”
Some who have studied abroad say fears of anti-American sentiment are exaggerated.
Liz Skrisson, a Lawrence Tech architecture major, studied in Costa Rica last month. Skrisson found the locals to be open and friendly.
“People would sit next to you in a park and look at you until you started a conversation,” she says, noting that Costa Rica’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism. When she arrived at customs, “Guys were sitting on the X-ray machines, waving [her] in.” When she offered her purse for security checking, they dismissed it.
Wayne Elliott, a graduate of Middle East studies from Ohio State University, encountered a different situation when he went to study in Israel in 2000. At that time, Israeli security was much more intense than airport security in the United States. Soldiers are fixtures in Israel.
Elliott found the influence of American media to be a stumbling block. He learned that forming preconceptions about other cultures was not a uniquely American fault — he says he was often targeted for good-natured teasing by Israelis who thought Americans were spoiled and hedonistic.
“They have access to our culture,” he says. “They have access to all of our stuff. But they don’t really live here. It’s rock stars. It’s movies. It’s not real life.”
Elliott and Skrisson say they were able to pitch in and, perhaps, help alter the image of the Ugly American.
To pay for his room and board, Wayne Elliott taught English at a day camp. Skrisson helped rebuild a soccer facility at her study site after the original structure had fallen prey to tropical storms. Both projects enhanced the lives of local residents.
Northern Michigan University’s study-abroad director John Weting hopes more people will recognize the value of international education and the students who choose to pursue it. He produces some impressive statistics. “There are approximately 583,000 international students studying in the U.S.A.; they bring in $12 billion annually, and the number of students grows at approximately 3 percent per year. We send approximately 154,000 students a year to study overseas, and these numbers are increasing as well.”
He notes that while most foreign students who come to the United States stay for four years, most American students who venture abroad stay for a semester or less.
Whatever the duration, the experience cannot be quantified simply in college credits, he says.
“The true value of international education,” says Weting, “is these young minds venturing to another corner of this world and discovering other ways of thinking, other ways of problem-solving, other cultures, and opening their minds and their eyes to a much broader world. That allows them to have a better understanding and appreciation of the views and beliefs of others — they gain tolerance, appreciation and understanding.”Joe Kotula is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]