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Study abroad programs show durability in age of terrorism

A traveler made his way through a hall way overlooking a tarmac at Logan International Airport.
A traveler made his way through a hall way overlooking a tarmac at Logan International Airport. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, study abroad programs braced for calls from worried parents wanting to bring their children home, where it was safe.

But few calls came, even as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks and threatened further violence. At Clark University in Worcester, one parent wanted to bring her son home from London, but he declined. Home was probably no safer.

“He said, ‘We live in New York, mom,’” recalled Adriane van Gils-Pierce, Clark’s director of study abroad and away programs.

As terrorist strikes cast a growing shadow over international travel, students might well be forgiven for thinking twice about studying abroad. But colleges and universities say terrorist fears have done little to slow the popularity of overseas programs, and students generally accept that security risks don’t necessarily increase beyond the US borders.


In a world where a social services center in Southern California isn’t safe from terrorism, concerns over spending a semester in Florence or Barcelona can seem misplaced.

“It doesn’t matter where you go anymore,” Gils-Pierce said. “I think students have the mindset that ‘I’m not going to let this deter me from what I really want to do.’ ”

College officials say they have bolstered emergency protocols for study abroad programs, and hold orientations to prepare students for problems they may encounter. Some schools contract with private security outfits to respond to emergencies, and urge students to register with a US embassy.

Some schools declined to discuss their study abroad protocals, saying that they didn’t want to run the risk of drawing unneccesary attention to their programs.

At the same time, colleges and students say that safety concerns are everywhere, noting the mass shootings this year in San Bernardino, Calif.; Roseburg, Ore.; and Charleston, S.C., among others. The odds of being involved in a terrorist attack are extremely remote, they add, and bombings and mass shootings have been a reality for decades.


The Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower. Pierre Suu/Getty Images

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said students from other countries increasingly ask him whether it is safe to study in the United States, putting the fears of American families into perspective.

“Terrorism fears are on everyone’s mind, but it’s not deterring people” from studying abroad, Goodman said.

The number of US students going abroad has more than tripled over the past two decades, and rose 60 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to the institute. In 2014, the most popular destination was the United Kingdom, followed by Italy, Spain, France, and China. Programs in Latin America and the Caribbean are also growing quickly.

“In the past decade, the dispersion of students has really increased,” Goodman said.

Among US undergraduates, only about 10 percent study abroad. But at more selective schools, the number is much higher.

At Wellesley College, for instance, about half of students spend some time abroad, and administrators do not expect the threat of terrorism will prove a deterrent.

“We think that it’s more important than ever that students have an international experience,” said Jennifer Thomas-Starck, Wellesley’s director of international studies. “I don’t see an impact on our enrollments.”

After the attacks in Paris, two students withdrew from a three-week program in the French capital that is scheduled to begin next month. But applications for study abroad programs increased, even though they were due just two weeks after the attacks.


Hannah Fox, a junior at Clark, will spend next semester in Cape Town, South Africa, and says she won’t let fears of terrorism interfere with a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“If I live in fear of what others may do, then I would never be able to accomplish my dreams of traveling,” she said. “Terrorism is not going to go away in my lifetime, and it won’t hold me back.”

Like Fox, many other students say the threat of terrorism only emboldens them to travel abroad.

“Many tell me, ‘We need to do this more than ever,” Goodman said. “They don’t want the terrorists to win.”

Goodman advocates that all students register with the US embassy in their host country, allowing them to receive warnings and other emergency information. Colleges also urge students to stay in touch with their program and inform them of their travel plans.

At Northeastern University, officials were able to contact all 55 students in Paris within “a matter of hours,” said Madeleine Estabrook, the university’s vice president for student affairs.

Estabrook says parents have shown more interest in security measures for study abroad programs, but that students haven’t voiced additional concerns.

“I don’t think the assessment of the risks has changed that much,” she said. “We
haven’t seen any slowdown in the numbers.”

And the regularity of terrorist attacks, Gils-Pierce said, has made people more likely to accept them than change plans in the hopes of avoiding them.


“They’ve become so commonplace, the majority of people say “I’m going to live my life,’ ” Gils-Pierce said.

A supermoon rose over Tower Bridge in London.
A supermoon rose over Tower Bridge in London. Paul Hackett/REUTERS/FILE

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.