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US: Violence in Turkey, Europe halts some study abroad programmes

As conflict and terrorist attacks around the world prompt fears over student safety, universities in the US are constantly reassessing the viability of study abroad programmes in high-risk regions. In recent months, some have suspended programmes in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe.

Turkish and international students from the US studying in Turkey in 2012. Photo: AFS USA.

“We got a few queries with raised eyebrows. Now of course I’m very comfortable with the decision we made”

Texas Tech University cancelled its study abroad programmes in Belgium and Turkey a couple of months ago.

“We got a few queries with raised eyebrows, saying why,” Tibor Nagy, vice provost for international affairs, told The PIE News. “Now of course I’m very comfortable with the decision we made.”

“The safety and welfare of our students are always top of mind”

Fifteen of the university’s students were in Nice at the time of the attacks, and while the university hasn’t suspended study abroad programmes in France, Nagy said staff reassess “literally every single day”.

The university takes many factors into consideration when deciding whether to suspend study abroad programmes, said Nagy. In the case of Belgium, the country’s high profile as a target for attacks contributed to the decision, as well as its relatively small size compared to France, whose security service, Nagy also noted, “is about as effective as you can have”.

Nagy acknowledged that Texas Tech is often more conservative with its study abroad destinations than most because of the type of students on their programmes.

“We have quite a few first-generation students, first ones in their families to ever go to university,” he said.

“And we also have an awful lot of students who if they do go on a study abroad excursion, they are the first ones in their family to ever have owned a passport.”

But it is not alone: Ohio State University, Stanford, Boston College, Ilinois State University and the University of Oklahoma have all suspended study abroad programming in Turkey until the situation improves.

“We choose to focus on the enriching value of continuing international cultural exchanges rather than lending validation to such despicable acts of terrorism”

“The safety and welfare of our students are always top of mind,” said Dru Simmons, international risk manager at Ohio State.

“We constantly monitor situations in all international locations, and follow the advice of the Department of State, Overseas Security Advisory Council and the university’s security providers.”

Nevertheless, Simmons noted the university has yet to experience a significant decline in applications to its existing programmes in Europe and Asia.

The University of California also suspended its Turkey programmes last spring, and is monitoring the situation in France and elsewhere. Decisions on whether to continue programmes are made “on a case-by-case basis”, a campus spokeswoman for UC Berkeley said.

Two students at UC Berkeley were killed in the recent terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Nice, France, but it’s important to remember these were “extraordinary events” and the only deaths as a result of terrorism and violence in the nine years the university system has been running study abroad programmes, the spokeswoman stressed.

She explained that following the attack in Nice earlier this month, the university “facilitated and supported any student’s decision to leave due to the trauma of this incident to them”, but the decision was left to students.

It is too soon to know if the attacks this summer will have an impact on students’ study abroad choices, she said, adding: “Many of our students are deeply committed to improving their communities as well as the world and they value the cultural and global learning experience that such programs provide.”

Other universities remain defiant in the face of recent violence, highlighting security measures to students rather than cancelling programmes in Turkey or elsewhere.

“We choose to focus on the enriching value of continuing international cultural exchanges rather than lending validation to such despicable acts of terrorism,” commented Fiona Mazurenko in the University of Texas at Austin’s international office.

“We unfortunately live in a time where disruptive events are borderless, and we all have to take precautions”

The university is encouraging students to avoid protests, report “suspicious activity” and reminding them to keep up registrations with the US department of consular affairs’ Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and the school’s assistance company.

“While we foster a culture that allows students, faculty, and staff to make decisions they deem to be in the best interest of their personal safety, we also seek to not allow fear to drive our decision-making or undermine the ability to learn and live in a free and resilient world,” she said.

The topic of student health and safety while on study abroad courses is central to the Forum on Education Abroad’s best practice standards. CEO and president Brian Whalen said the organisation is constantly updating its resources to reflect the best practices that institutions employ.

“We have a full day workshop that we’re conducting in Athens in our European conference in October specifically looking at this issue of how to best organise and manage programmes in this era of increased terrorism,” he said.

Wagaye Johannes, project director for IIE’s Generation Study Abroad, commented that while  destinations may shift and programs may be temporarily suspended she’s confident that study abroad will continue to grow.

“We unfortunately live in a time where disruptive events are borderless, and we all have to take precautions against threats of violence, including terrorism,” she said, adding: “We at IIE believe that study abroad is one of the best ways for Americans to foster mutual understanding and prepare for global careers in our interconnected world.”

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