The University of Iowa

Safety is top priority for students studying abroad

September 17th, 2014

The Daily Iowan

When countries erupt in violent conflict, are shattered by a powerful earthquake, or fall victim to the outbreak of a deadly disease, studying abroad in those areas become much more restricted.

“When it comes to study abroad, safety for students and faculty is a No. 1 priority,” said Joan Kjaer, director of strategic communications for University of Iowa International Programs.

That priority can mean a variety of adjustments when it comes to studying abroad for some students.

This past summer, a scheduled archaeology trip to Israel through the UI was canceled because of the sudden exacerbation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Students participate in a dig during the archaeology in Israel program in summer 2013. The program was canceled for summer 2014 due to conflict in the area.

“There was a rocket strike where our team had been just a week earlier,” said UI graduate student Cale Staley, recalling an experience during his time spent on the previous two trips to Israel.

International Studies Abroad is an organization that offers educational experiences abroad at institutions around the country, including the UI, which provides safety measures for students.

“Our Colombia program, for example, has on-site staff that educate the students on places they can and cannot go and a 24/7 emergency line,” said Walt Lengel, the associate director of university relations for International Studies Abroad.

Most study-abroad programs also include an international evacuation insurance policy in the overall cost, said Autumn Tallman, associate director of Study Abroad at the UI. The policy covers $500,000 worth of medical care, as well as medical evacuation and security needs.

UI senior Julia Julstrom-Agoyo, who spent a semester in Rwanda, said despite some disruptions, she felt relatively safe.

“…While I was in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where our program was based, there were some small explosives that went off in crowded markets because of the upcoming parliamentary elections at the time,” she wrote in an email. “Though thankfully no one in our program was in the vicinity, so we were safe.”

While resources are abundant to international students studying in dangerous areas, it can be difficult to discern what is truly dangerous.

“Unrest is no cause for restriction,” Lengel said.

Amy Bowes, the UI study-abroad adviser for Africa and the Middle East, said regardless of the degree of danger, advisers must be as upfront as possible with students interested in studying in potentially hostile areas.

“When they want to go into a situation that is precarious, we suggest an alternative,” she said. “We then try to find a comparable, safer alternative that will offer the same educational experience.”

Depending on the area in question, there are several guidelines taken into consideration when deciding to allow or cancel a study-abroad trip.

“We are constantly in contact with the Department of State and U.S. embassies, as well as various private resources,” Bowes said.

While studying abroad in Rwanda, UI student Julia Julstom-Agoyo was invited to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her homestay father's brother. “While the two-day ceremony was entirely in Kinyarwanda, the local language, and I didn't really know what my role was supposed to be, everyone welcomed me kindly and I made friends with my homestay's extended family and friends!" she said.

Bowes said lists of students participating in such trips are sent to U.S. embassies in accordance with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

An entity of the Department of State, the program allows American travelers to enter information about their trips abroad to better prepare U.S. embassies and consulates to assist them during an emergency.

Such a situation arose for the UI Study Abroad program last spring, when the Ebola outbreak hit Western Africa.

“We decided to go ahead and cancel our trips to that area, and it ended up being a smart move,” Tallman said.

UI senior Elisabeth Lowe is interested in the conservation of bonobos, which are only found in areas of conflict, such as the Congo, or in other unsafe places in Africa. She said it will be nearly impossible for her to get hands-on work.

“It used to be that everyone was going to Africa to do all this research, but even the professionals can’t go anymore,” Lowe said.

Despite the obvious risks, some argue there is still an educational benefit to studying abroad.

“After coming back from that, I felt much more confidence while traveling and dealing with people from different backgrounds,” said Haley Church, a junior interdepartmental sciences major at UI who studied in Botswana last year.