Frequently Asked Questions
by William Hoffa, Academic Consultants International at the School for International Training
Why is study abroad so popular these days?
At the beginning of the 21st century, in a world becoming every year more interdependent, the ultimate educational value to students of pursuing at least some portion of their undergraduate years living and learning in another country is no longer really debatable. Not only is the global competence and awareness gained by such an experience crucial to American national and international interests, but students who leave college without having had a significant ‘globalizing' experience as part of their undergraduate education, many educators now believe, will increasingly be thought of as not fully educated for the professional world they will enter. Your son or daughter understands this.
Indeed, the proverbially well-rounded education in preparation for living and working successfully in the 21st century needs not only to be “higher,” but also deeper, broader and less nationalistic and mono-cultural than that which has served past generations. As stated by national report after national report, we now live in a global society in which knowledge, resources and authority transcend national and regional boundaries. The knowledge, skills and attitudes it takes to understand and prevail in such a society can be best achieved by living and learning through direct experience in a culture beyond one's own.
But why does one need to go far away to learn these lessons? Don't nearly a half million students from other countries come each year to study here?
It is important to learn about the “foreignness” of other lands, cultures and people, but it is also important to learn invaluable lessons about what it means to be an “American.” Students studying abroad learn how to distinguish those parts of themselves which are products of their time and place in American society from those parts which are universal to all of humankind. This degree of personal and national self-knowledge simply cannot be gained at “home.” Whatever the resources of their college or university and however high their motivation, students' perspectives remain limited by the blinders of being only in their own culture.
What would a summary of all the reasons for studying abroad look like?
First, study abroad enriches and diversifies undergraduate education by offering courses, programs and academic learning of a sort not possible on the home campus. Second, study abroad provides American students with a global outlook, which emphasizes the contemporary inter-relatedness of nations and cultures, the universality of human values, and the necessity for working together. Third, study abroad enhances career preparation by teaching cross-cultural and work-place skills of value to today's employers, often through internships and other hands-on experiences. Finally, study abroad deepens intellectual and personal maturity, fosters independent thinking and builds self-confidence.
What are the primary causes of health and safety problems that students might face overseas?
Many of the health and safety problems students find abroad are similar to those they find on U.S. college and university campuses. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests individual student behavior (sometimes misbehavior) is the cause of most illnesses, injuries and fatalities. When students do not prepare themselves properly, ignore the advice and counsel of campus and overseas personnel, or act naively or as if they are invulnerable, they can get into a lot of trouble. This is especially true when they travel excessively on their own or engage in dangerous social behavior, such as binge drinking or hanging out in unsavory local nightspots. Your daughter or son is considerably less likely to be the victim of a natural catastrophe, social violence, disease, or program negligence than of being victimized by her or his own poor judgment exercised in unfamiliar surroundings.
However, there are health and safety problems that are not the direct responsibility of students themselves, but which can victimize them. These involve modes of travel (airplane, bus, van, taxi, car, etc.); criminal behavior directed against them (theft, sexual assault); and permanent or evolving health and safety conditions in the local environment (disease, natural catastrophes, political upheaval). In order to be prepared to meet the challenges specific to particular programs and locations, it is important that you and your daughter or son learn from information provided by the program sponsors, as well as, if possible, from the experiences of past study abroad students. Make sure to cover not just what's what during the academic portion or the study abroad program, but what can happen on excursions, as well as during independent travel. Obviously, there are many variations between countries, regions and programs.
How do we know that study abroad will be safe for our child? Recent newspapers and TV accounts suggest that overseas risks may be great. Is this true?
Established overseas study programs fully recognize the responsibility to provide a secure and unthreatening environment in which your daughter or son can live and learn safely. Responsible campuses and programs regularly consult with colleagues around the country who are involved in the administration of study abroad programs, with resident directors, with responsible officials of foreign host universities, with contacts in the U.S. Department of State, with governmental and non-governmental agencies, and with other experts, including faculty who are well-informed on issues and events. It is in no one's interest to risk student safety or wellbeing.
How does UW Whitewater's Office of International Education & Programs know what is going on overseas?
The ability to communicate almost instantaneously worldwide via fax machines and e-mail enables campuses, third-party program sponsors, and parents to obtain and share information quickly and accurately in planning programs. Modern telecommunications also allows for the monitoring of evolving events. In the event of an overseas emergency that may have repercussions for study abroad programs and students, it is possible to take immediate action. Most campuses and programs have an effective system of consultation in place for these purposes. They are thus able to make proactive and reactive decisions concerning the safe operation of their programs.
Aren't most countries just inherently dangerous to Americans? What do U.S. embassies do to guarantee safety of American citizens?
Most Americans know what they know, not from direct experience in other countries, but from the mass media, which tends to sensationalize world events. Few countries, for instance, have as much street crime and the potential for stranger-upon-stranger violence as the United States. U.S. students may be statistically “safer” in foreign cities and towns than they are at home or on their own campus. Many U.S. students report, when they return from a period abroad, that they had never felt safer in their lives. This does not mean that there is no crime elsewhere, or that your daughter's or son's personal safety is ever completely assured. Minor street crime (especially pick-pocketing) is a fact of life in many countries, especially in crowded cities that receive regular influxes of foreign visitors.
Who can help my daughter or son if trouble occurs?
In those few locations where even remote danger might occasionally exist, program directors work with local police, U.S. consular personnel, and local university officials in setting up whatever practical security measures are deemed prudent. In such places, students will be briefed during orientation programs and reminded at times of heightened political tension about being security-conscious in their daily activities. Terrorism is a 20th-century reality and is not likely to diminish (or increase) significantly. To succumb to the threat by reacting in fear may well be the objective that terrorists seek to achieve. On the other hand, no one wants to make this point at the expense of the health and safety of your daughter or son. It is important that your son or daughter has sufficient insurance. Be sure to talk to your child about alternate insurance plans if your current family plan does not cover your son or your daughter overseas.
If our child is abroad when something dangerous develops, how can we make contact? What if something happens here and we want to communicate this immediately?
Don't let your child leave home without having as many reliable means of contact as possible in place – a mailing address, an e-mail address, and phone and fax numbers. As noted, overseas programs and home campuses are likely to have set up regular and reliable means of communication, so it may be best to utilize these systems as a first resort, rather than trying to make direct contact with your daughter or son overseas. Nevertheless, you should develop a family communication plan for regular telephone or e-mail contact, with contingencies for emergency situations. With this in place, in times of heightened political tension, natural disaster, or other difficulty, you should be able to communicate with each other directly about safety and wellbeing. On the other hand, responsible programs may even anticipate your concerns, and make contact with you immediately. Instant international communication in emergency situations continues to improve with easy access to e-mail and international cell phones.
Can anyone absolutely guarantee our child's safety?
No. Nor can her or his home college or university guarantee safety on-campus in the United States. As long as you have asked all the questions of the campus, of the program sponsor, of your son or daughter, and have the answers you need concerning potential health and safety risks, you have done all you can do. If the risks are unacceptable, you have every right to find another alternative or decide not to support study abroad in any form. If they are acceptable, then only fate can interfere with what should be a great journey and return.