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Study abroad programs focus on safety

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, November 10, 2006

After studying abroad in locales such as Paris, Cairo and Toledo, students return to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s with unforgettable memories of cities, of friends and, sometimes, of crimes.

Notre Dame senior Mary Corrigan was allegedly attacked by a man coming home from a bar a little more than a month into her semester in Angers, France last fall. Corrigan, who lived with a host family, said she walked the first 20 minutes home from the bar with others, then walked the last 10 minutes through the residential neighborhood by herself.

“I got to my door, and then all of a sudden there was a man choking me from behind,” Corrigan said. “He said something to me very quickly, in a whispered voice – in French – and I couldn’t understand what he said.”

The man tried to push her key away from the door, but Corrigan said her host mom heard the commotion and her arrival scared him away.

Criminal incidents can happen anywhere, said Lesley Sullivan, the Office of International Studies program coordinator for Notre Dame’s Angers program and four other international study programs. Associate Director Kathleen Opel said the most common crime Notre Dame students experience abroad has been pickpocketing.

But Notre Dame, through orientation sessions, tries to ensure that students – especially female study abroad participants – know how to stay safe in foreign countries.

Sullivan organizes an information session called Women and Study Abroad mandatory for female study abroad participants.

The purpose, she said, “is really to outline areas of concern that students might have or encounter and to provide resources for those students about how to deal with those areas.”

The 90-minute session provides health and safety tips and features insight from returning students. The Office of International Studies addresses “cultural cues and miscues” students can encounter when they are overseas. University Health Services, the University Counseling Center and student representatives from PILLARS also present issues students may encounter while abroad.

In the second part of the session, returning female students describe situations their peers may face when they are in a foreign country. One scenario, Sullivan said, is how to dress when a student goes for a run in a country like Mexico. With their experience, the returning students can give their peers advice on how to handle this type of situation, Sullivan said.

“The point there is to put things in their heads that hopefully will light up if they find themselves in a situation which is threatening or uncomfortable and they will remember something that was told to them at these sessions,” she said.

Alice Siqin Yang, the assistant director of International and Intercultural Learning at the Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership, said in an e-mail that Saint Mary’s takes a “tremendous number of precautions” to ensure student safety abroad. The College holds mandatory pre-departure orientations for program participants that address health and safety issues.

Saint Mary’s junior Maggie Madden said she felt safe during her semester in Rome last spring.

“I thought that Saint Mary’s did a really good job preparing us,” she said.

Notre Dame senior Christa Laneri, who also went to Angers last fall, said she thought safety was a concern for Angers program participants mainly because the students were spread throughout the town with host families and could not always avoid walking home alone in the dark.

“Since it is a residential area, people would go to bed by nine or ten,” Laneri said. “So if you are coming home late, it’s dark and there is no one else on the streets.”

Her host family’s house was about 20 minutes away from where classes were held and about 25 to 30 minutes away from the downtown area, Laneri said. But one of her friends lived nearby, she said, so she only had to walk the last 5 to 10 minutes alone.

To avoid walking home alone, Sullivan said, students need to plan in advance their agenda for the evening. Many times, the men in the program can walk women home before returning to their own houses, she said.

The program’s resident director can also reimburse students for a certain number of taxi cab rides each semester, Sullivan said.

“If a female student feels uncomfortable or threatened, all [she needs] to do is take a taxi then talk to the resident director about it afterwards,” she said.

Notre Dame senior Viviana Castro said she had a good semester in Angers last spring and said she never felt unsafe.

“My advice is just stay close [to campus], and if you are going someplace farther away, take a cab,” Castro said.

Notre Dame’s Women and Study Abroad session is only one of a series of orientation sessions that give students tips to stay safe overseas, Sullivan said. Each program also provides participants with numbers they can call in an emergency. The Office of International Studies also stays up to date on State Department warnings and gives students information about the country they are visiting.

Associate director Julliet Mayinja, who oversees the Cairo program, said she advises students how to respect the Arab culture through their dress and behavior.

“Obviously, presentation is a big thing in Arab culture and the perception that women in the West are loose and easy is prevalent, so we make sure students understand this,” Mayinja said.

Notre Dame senior Anne Kroeger studied in Cairo the spring semester of her junior year. Kroeger dressed conservatively while she was there – no skirts shorter than mid-calf length and never any low-cut shirts, she said. And she always kept a scarf in her backpack to wrap around herself if she entered a restaurant.

“You had to be conscientious of what the reality was there,” she said.

The security at her dorm in Cairo was so strong that she never felt unsafe in the building, Kroger said.

“Unless you weren’t smart, unless you made bad decisions, for the most part you were fine,” she said.

Self-responsibility is the bottom line, Sullivan said. The Office of International Studies provides the necessary information, but students must make an effort to absorb and utilize this advice.

“After all is said and done, the student also needs to take responsibility for [his or her] own safety,” she said.