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Abroad programs balance student safety, experience

Amanda Michaels | Friday, January 27, 2006

Like a fairy tale, time spent studying abroad is a period of incredible adventure and growth for many students – complete with kings, queens and castles. But as is sometimes the case in these classic stories, venturing off the familiar path can have unexpectedly dangerous results.

Notre Dame has been consistently praised for the strength of its overseas programs, ranking fifth among American research universities for the percentage of students studying abroad in the most recent report issued by the Institute for International Education, and even higher in previous years. So, with over 1,000 students abroad almost every school year, the University bears a great responsibility in ensuring the health and welfare of participants in 17 countries across the globe.

“During such a turbulent and important period in history, many courageous students are interested in going abroad, and it is essential to balance their safe while promoting internationalism,” said Julia Douthwaite, director of the Office of International Studies (ISP).

The greatest threat posed to students abroad, Douthwaite said, is often their own complacency – in forgetting that activities normal for life in Indiana may warrant more caution for those living overseas.

“Things do happen now and then in various sites abroad, many times because of imprudent behavior, like falling asleep on a train or walking alone at night,” Douthwaite said. “Some are just innocent victims as well, however, and it is important that students know what they may face even if they stay aware.”

To ensure students are informed, ISP offers site-specific orientation for undergraduates before they leave, which often includes advice from past program participants as well as the standard travel advisories. A session specifically aimed at the concerns of women studying abroad is also offered annually.

Despite all precautions, however, the worst can happen. A wallet can go missing on a crowded metro, a computer can disappear from a flat or a student can even become the victim of assault.

Last semester two female juniors participating in the Angers, France program reported, in separate incidents, allegedly being attacked while walking back to the residences of their host families.

The first alleged incident occurred at approximately 1 a.m. Oct. 20, and the second allegedly around 12:30 a.m. Dec. 16, according the alleged victims. The students lived three blocks away from each other and were the only Notre Dame students located in this neighborhood of Angers.

The first reported being physically attacked by an unidentified French male while entering her home, and the second reported allegedly being grabbed by the neck and knocked into a house by an unidentified male on the street.

Both women contacted the Angers police, but said neither alleged attacker has been apprehended as of yet.

Though neither student was seriously injured by the alleged attacks, both said the incidents changed their lifestyles in France.

The day after the incident, the first alleged victim said she was approached for directions by a young French male and “nearly had a heart attack.”

“I didn’t leave my house after dark alone even just to get dinner,” the second alleged victim said. “I am just glad that it happened at the end [of my time in Angers].”

The women had attended a safety orientation for Angers presented by the program’s directors, Jonathan and Maureen Boulton, at which time they were advised to stay in groups if possible, and were given specific warnings about walking home alone.

“[Maureen Boulton] told us to ‘keep our wits about us,'” the second alleged victim said. “But I had all my wits about me. I hadn’t been drinking and I wasn’t tired.”

Douthwaite, a former director of the Angers program, said she had always told students to take a cab if possible, or even buy a bike, because the low amount of nighttime foot traffic in the area made the “provincial city at times more unsafe than a major metropolitan capital.”

Former participants of the Angers program reported similar incidents.

Senior Kathy Peterson said she was allegedly accosted by two men while walking home from the train station by herself one November morning at 5 a.m. The first allegedly forced a pornographic magazine in front of her, she said, and a kilometer later the second man ran out from behind a church and allegedly exposed his naked body to her.

“[At the time of the incident] the streets I was on were well-lit and the neighborhoods relatively affluent, so I felt safe,” Peterson said. “Clearly this could have been prevented if I had used my better judgment to take a cab. Safety of Notre Dame students in Angers is more a question of how safe Angers itself is, and not how safe the program is.”

Seniors Anne Macrander and Joanna Paxton both had experiences where they were approached and unnerved on the street.

“The incident was preventable, but entirely on my part,” Macrander said of her situation. “I would never advise anyone to opt out of the Angers program solely because of safety concerns.”

Paxton said she often found herself walking home at night because buses in the area stopped running at 7 p.m.

Though senior Stefanie Dittert reported no similar incident, she said she was “not surprised” to hear of the attacks.

“When I lived there, my host family lived at least a 45 minute walk from [the University] and then even farther from the downtown area, where everyone went out,” she said. “I never felt safe walking there at night, but I did walk home pretty much every night in the dark, because our classes got out very late and then after that I would go to dinner, to the gym, just your general errand-running in town.”

Cabs are an option, but Douthwaite said budget constraints make it impossible for the University to fund frequent taxi rides.

Students pointed to the isolated locations of the host family residences as a possible cause of the problems, and the women who were allegedly attacked this year both said they would feel more comfortable in a communal student residence.

“When students live together in a dorm, they tend to speak their native language,” Jonathan Boulton said, defending the host family system. “The point of the [Angers] program is to plunge the student into the linguistic and cultural aspects of the country, in the deepest way possible. The best way is to be housed with host families. A student could be raped or mugged on his way to a [student] residence, as well. There’s no way to prevent crimes like this from occurring … you can’t keep people from being preyed upon unless you lock them up.”

Students in the Angers program are not the only ones familiar with the dangers of studying abroad. In a sample group of participants from Notre Dame’s main overseas locations, half reported some form of unsafe incident.

Most indicated they or someone they knew had been a victim of theft, normally pickpocketing in busy city centers, or had been victim of some form of “ethnic tensions,” as one student described it.

No one who had experienced any sort of problem blamed the University.

“I would say that at least in this program, most ‘unsafe’ incidents would probably be

preventable by students making smart and not drunk decisions,” said Dan McGee, a junior spending the year at University College Dublin.

Several suggested a more rigorous orientation program, but most said staying safe was a matter of following common sense.

Douthwaite explained that staff at every abroad program – even those not directly under Notre Dame’s administration – was familiar with the protocols for issues of individual safety as well as terrorism. She said ISP was prepared with a multi-tiered response that, depending on the incident’s severity, involves other offices, including Student Affairs and General Counsel.

For the past two years, faculty members who staff abroad programs have undergone an orientation in dealing with emergencies, including how to deal with an individual victim on-site.

“We take students’ well-being seriously,” Douthwaite said. “Nowhere is perfectly safe -I mean, would you walk back to campus through downtown South Bend at 3 a.m.? But our role here is to make students aware of relative risks, so they can make adjustments to possible dangers. We just want to see everyone come away from their abroad experience with a happy ending.”