SARS keeping students from traveling abroad

Influence of disease felt more than terrorism

April 28, 2003|By Bethany Broida | Bethany Broida,SUN STAFF

War, terrorism and general uncertainty in the world are not deterring area college students from participating in study programs abroad, but severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS, is a whole different story.

Colleges and universities in the area report an increase in the number of students interested in studying abroad in the coming school year and say the war and threats of terrorism aren't having any effect on the number of applicants.

But since the U.S. State Department issued SARS-related travel warnings for China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, students studying there are being sent home and most are choosing not to go to Asia in the summer or fall.

"SARS is more worrisome and problematic than the war," said Sara Dumont, director of study abroad for Towson University.

Towson had one student in Hong Kong this semester who is home now. "He did not want to leave, but I think his parents really wanted him to come home and we advised him to come back," Dumont said. "At first, the university where he was studying said that everything was under control, but then they started quarantining the students and shut down the university for a week, so we decided it was better for American students to come home."

In addition, the university had planned two summer programs in the region, one in China and one to China and Hong Kong, but had to cancel both. The programs usually attract 10 to 15 students each, but Dumont said applications were down since the discovery of SARS was announced.

"We were very disappointed about that," she said. "Our applications for Asia were really increasing lately."

The school had been pushing travel to less popular areas such as Asia recently, and that effort was beginning to pay off before SARS took hold in the region. This year, 14 percent of Towson's study abroad students went to Asia, compared with 4 percent last year.

Loyola College in Maryland plans to send seven students to Beijing in the fall, but the school is closely monitoring the situation before making a final decision. "Of course, the golden rule is that we will not send students any place that we don't think is safe," said Andre Colombat, director of international programs at Loyola.

Loyola has two students in Beijing. The students were supposed to return at the end of next month, but are coming home this month instead.

Colombat said the decision to send them home was made by the director of the campus in Beijing. The school has restricted the students' travel and checks information from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention daily so that they are able to separate fact from fiction and put the situation into context.

"We would have canceled any program in the region if we had any," said Richard Weaver, international studies coordinator for the Study Abroad Office at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We tend not to get a large number of students that want to go to that region, and if someone came in we would advise that it would be prudent to wait."

University of Maryland has four students participating in programs in Hong Kong. They all have been offered the option of returning home, but Weaver said with only four students, intricacies are involved. "One student has family there and another is a graduate student, plus they were all there when this started, so you have to ask if it is wise for them to get on a plane," he said.

Absent the fear of SARS, the number of students choosing to go abroad is on the rise. University of Maryland reported the largest number of students going abroad for the January winter term and Loyola said its numbers are up over last year as well. However, most schools won't know exact figures for the coming school year until application and acceptance deadlines for fall programs have passed in a few weeks.

"We have not been getting students that are particularly anxious about being abroad," Weaver said. "With all of the terrorism-related things going on in the world, living in the Baltimore/Washington area there is at least as great a chance of a terrorist attack here as living abroad."

Stas Obrebski, 19, a Towson University student from Catonsville who is studying in London, echoes that sentiment. "As for the war, it has made for some wicked debates and heated conversations. It is a can of worms no matter where you are. ... Sure the Heathrow area is at risk, but Baltimore's close enough to D.C. that frankly it is hard to say which is more dangerous. As for prospective students - go for it, absolutely," Obrebski said.

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