Students Focus on Safety While Studying and Volunteering Abroad

As he navigates the world on a cruise ship, Benjamin Fisher, sophomore at Manhattan College, is stopping at various ports on his semester at sea and learning a little bit about other cultures as he goes.

“I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a Russian man I met in a café. He was in the Russian military and even allowed me to take a picture with his hat on,” Fisher said.

Fisher added, “When I asked him if he would be in the picture with me he refused and said it could get him in a lot of trouble if anyone saw.”

Studying abroad in college is always a unique experience depending on which destination a student chooses. However, depending on the chosen destination, students can expect different safety concerns as well as historical events to present themselves.

Students studying abroad in Scotland witnessed the turmoil surrounding the referendum on Scotland's independence last month. Photo by Dominika Iszczek.
Students studying abroad in Scotland witnessed the turmoil surrounding the referendum on Scotland’s independence last month. Photo by Dominika Iszczek.

The Spanish vote for independence was a historical event that junior Sara DeCaro was able to experience as she is currently studying abroad in Barcelona.

“I have not witnessed any violence while I have been here so far,” DeCaro said. “When they had the march in Catalonia for the vote for independence, there was a very big group that participated, however no violence took place.”

One of the biggest stories in recent news was the Scottish Independence Referendum that Elvis Sokoli, a senior, was able to be a part of during his 2014 fall semester abroad.

“There wasn’t a person on the street, young or old, that didn’t have an opinion on independence. And, no fault to Scotland, but the morning after the vote was very anti-climactic,” said Sokoli.

Professor Nonie Wanger is the director of the study abroad program at the college. With over 3,000 study abroad programs, students have seemingly endless possibilities that go well beyond Italy, Spain, England and France.

“When a student comes and tells us that he or she would like to study in a certain location, the first thing we do is we check the U.S. State Department website… which lists which countries have to be avoided,” Wanger said.

Mozambique, Yemen, Nigeria, Venezuela and Ukraine are just some of the places that the U.S. Department of State currently has travel warnings out for.

According to Wanger, the Office of Study Abroad takes many precautions when students go abroad.

The office watches the news to keep up with current events and keeps in touch with program directors abroad.

Wanger said that even if MC does not have any students in a certain country, the international program directors still send MC’s study abroad staff updates on conditions in certain countries.

“So in that sense we are comfortable knowing that our students are not in danger. Also, we have a good insurance plan for the students and if there is some turmoil, we could bring them back,” Wanger said.

“I have seen demonstrations but nothing that even hinted at violence,” Sokoli said. “Most of the demonstrations were held by voters in the Yes campaign, but even then everyone was very respectful and willing to talk and discuss their views.”

“I feel extremely safe while studying abroad in Barcelona. I have actually never felt more safe in my entire life. Everyone here is willing to help you if you ever have a problem, and that is a very comforting feeling,” DeCaro said.

“I hate to talk so negatively about Russian politics without mentioning that the Russian people were absolutely phenomenal and very nice. Many seemed to understand the oppressive aspects of their government,” Fisher said.

Another program on campus that has been affected by unpredictable international events is the Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) program.

The L.O.V.E. program goes to places like Haiti, Ecuador, El Salvador and multiple locations in the U.S.

Jenn Edwards, coordinator of the L.O.V.E. program, said that she follows many of the same guidelines that the study abroad office follows including communicating with the directors of the international programs.

If a destination is determined to be unsafe, Edwards first tries to switch the destination of the trip. However, if that does not work, the L.O.V.E. trip could possibly be cancelled all together.

Edwards determined that the 2014 L.O.V.E. Kenya trip was too risky after the Nairobi Mall bombing on Sept. 21 of last year.

In this case, the 11 students, one chaperone and Edwards tried to establish connections with the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Ethiopia, which also did not work out due to growing threats targeting westerners.

“Most of the locations our L.O.V.E. programs go to are areas which have dire poverty, conflict and other issues that pose a threat to safety,” Edwards said.

The study abroad and L.O.V.E. programs both have potential safety concerns which is why the directors of these programs at MC are always alert and looking out for the safety of students.

“Sometimes there are manifestations in the countries students are in and they like to be there, to witness the events but sometimes it becomes violent,” Wanger said.

“Nowadays there is no safe place. Look around Manhattan,” Wanger said.

Some advice that Wanger has for students traveling internationally is to always travel in groups, be aware of surroundings and to not attract attention as foreigners.

Wanger also tells students, “take a ‘big heavy suitcase full of common sense’ with you and just follow the instructions that directors give you.”