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Studying Abroad Still Considered Safe

Published: February 1, 2016

Campus globetrotters are giving fresh consideration to travel safety since the tragic death of CSULB’s Nohemi Gonzalez in the Paris terror attacks last November.

“If you ask people whether they are more afraid of dying from a shark attack or from a piece of airplane debris falling from the sky and striking them in the head, most people will tell you that they worry more about the shark attack,” said Kimberly Walters, a new face this fall in International Studies. “But in fact, shark attacks are much rarer than deaths from falling airplane debris. To put it another way, it’s not the things we fear that will kill us. And, more importantly, the fear about things that are unlikely to kill us . . . is killing us.

“That’s the point of terrorism: to panic us,” continued Walters, who earned her doctorate in comparative human development from the University of Chicago in 2015. “We can’t live our lives panicked about something that is, in fact, a highly remote possibility. Yes, it’s remotely possible that students who study abroad could become the victims of violence. But it is far, far more likely that students who choose to stay home because they fear violence abroad would end up dying in a car accident while at home. Again, we can’t make life decisions based on extremely rare occurrences. There is nothing that Nohemi could have done to ‘stay safe’ from the attackers. Going to concerts, eating in restaurants, touring beautiful cities–this is all part of living. We can either choose to live or choose not to live by hiding ourselves away. Personally, I choose to live.”

When Walters returns to India this summer, she hopes to take a student with her as a research assistant and eventually as a co-author on publications. “I also plan to establish a field school in Hyderabad, India, where each summer I can mentor students in internships and individual research projects,” she said.

New International Studies’ faculty member Barbara Grossman-Thompson, who earned her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2015, agrees that today’s student travelers need to stay calm.

“The first thing I do to protect myself overseas is to understand that a lot of foreign danger is a constructed myth,” said the expert in gendered organization of labor in Nepal. “The first thing I would do is deconstruct the myth of the dangerous ‘other place’. Tragedies happen abroad, but an enriching experience is far more likely to happen.”

During her most recent visit to Nepal, Grossman-Thompson resided in the big city of Kathmandu.

“Living in Kathmandu, the number one challenge was finding a quiet place,” she said. “Kathmandu is a bustling, vibrant place but prayers start at 3 a.m. and bells are ringing while they perform worship. It is a South Asian city filled with traffic noise, monks and water buffalo. Roosters do not go to bed at midnight. Just finding a silent moment was the biggest challenge.”

Her support for study abroad extends to taking a student to Nepal in the summer of 2016. “Both Dr. Walters and I are enthusiastic about getting undergrads into the field,” said Grossman-Thompson. “I want our students to get a look not just at what research is like but what different cultures are like. Being part of another culture, even for a moment, is an enriching experience.”

The risks of world travel have been exaggerated, said Terrence Graham, executive director of CSULB’s Center for International Education.

“It is the fear of ‘over there,’” said Graham, who is completing his doctorate of education in Higher Education Administration at George Washington University. “I always reassure our students and their parents that student safety is foremost in our minds. The design of our programs, the partnerships that we forge and the places we send our students show we use the best practices from across the industry.

“As part of our review process, we provide lots of guidance and advice to students, not only in the orientation but in our advising to them about steps they can take to stay safe,” he added. “We rely a lot on our overseas partners as well as the U.S. embassy and the government officials there. The State Department has a useful smartphone app. We require all our students to be registered through those apps with the State Department wherever they are so they can get up-to-the-minute alerts regarding natural disasters or political uncertainties. The situation with Nohemi Gonzalez only strengthened my trust in our partners overseas because our partner in Paris was really on the ball. He kept communicating with us all through the night making sure all our students were safe and accounted for. They are study abroad professionals just like we are. They know what to do in case of an emergency and work together with us as a team.”

Walters added that students who travel abroad can stay safe by being as level-headed about their actions while they are abroad as when they are at home.

“Traveling in a foreign country is not the time to start acting crazily and recklessly, simply because you imagine yourself to be on vacation,” she advised. “Stay safe by being well-informed and smart about what you choose to do, when you choose to do it, and with whom you choose to do it, just as you would at home.”