As more students study overseas, risks increase About 100,000 participate in programs abroad

January 20, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Time was when "study abroad" meant 10 days in London during winter break, or, for lucky students at elite colleges, a semester in the museums of Vienna.

But a shrinking world and increasing wealth have changed that. Students and their professors study everything from architecture to zoology in the four corners of the globe.

As this academic army advances, concede college and university officials, so do the chances of violence like that encountered last week in Guatemala by a group from St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland.

The Guatemala incident had university and college officials in Maryland and elsewhere scrambling yesterday to calm anxious parents and check procedures for keeping students and professors out of harm's way as they study abroad.

"You do everything you can," said Dean Esslinger, associate vice president for academic programs at Towson University, where about 150 students study abroad annually. "You counsel students about how to behave, how to stay away from dangerous situations. You watch State Department advisories carefully. But there's no way in the world to protect somebody all the time anywhere in the world."

Foreign study has become a major industry within higher education. Nearly 100,000 students study abroad, up from 70,000 only three years ago.

"All the cliches about the global village suggest that universities are behaving responsibly when they insist that their students study firsthand everywhere in the village," said Esslinger.

Some schools, such as the Johns Hopkins University and Western Maryland College, have their own foreign campuses. Others, such as Kalamazoo College in Michigan, encourage all upperclassmen to study abroad.

Even universities such as Towson, where only about 1 percent of students go overseas to pursue studies, have established offices to coordinate students' foreign academic work.

"It amazes me that incidents like the St. Mary's attack are still relatively rare when you consider the huge and growing number of Americans studying overseas," said Sara Dumont, director of study abroad at Towson.

"One of the biggest dangers for Americans," she added, "is not terrorism, but rather getting hit by a vehicle in the United Kingdom," where drivers drive on the left side of the street.

In organizing international study, Dumont said, universities try to "use common sense." State Department advisories (available on the Internet) warn of dangerous spots around the globe. Students are advised to travel in pairs or groups and to wear money belts. Faculty always accompany the students if the foreign study is sponsored by Towson, and it helps if both students and professors speak the language of the host country.

"No matter what you do, though," said David Larsen, director of the Center for Education Abroad at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., "you're dealing with 20-year-olds who are anxious to try their wings. It's very difficult."

Third World countries aren't necessarily the most dangerous for American students, Dumont said. "You're just as likely to get held up at gunpoint in a major European city as in some parts of the Third World."

Foreign students studying here, meanwhile, outnumber American students abroad by about 6 to 1, a ratio that has held steady for years. Many U.S. colleges, among them the Maryland Institute, College of Art, aggressively recruit foreign students.

Towson requires students who travel abroad to have health insurance and makes available a low-cost policy covering such contingencies as emergency evacuations. Esslinger said the university also screens applicants for foreign study "to make sure it's for good reason. Some want to do it to escape a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend."

Dumont predicted the St. Mary's incident "will be a two-edged sword. People will be more afraid, but they'll also be more cautious, which is good. This will bring the issue of safety in foreign locations to the forefront, where we can have a thorough conversation about it."

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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