Students deal with crises while studying abroad - DatelineCarolina

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When crisis strikes while studying abroad

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By Tas Anjarwalla, Emily Hoefer, Desiree Murphy and Amy Smith
Edited by Amy Smith

With the greater push to study abroad by university departments and governmental programs, more students are heading to destinations that study abroad offices label "nontraditional."

Among these regions are those in Far East Asia and the Middle East, where recent natural and political events have taken place. Study abroad offices and organizations say they do what they can to prepare students for disaster, be it economic, political or natural, and when it comes down to it, they even set up an evacuation plan. For students forced to flee, though, it's staying away that has been the hardest part.

Kaytlin Error, from Ohio State University, was in "nontraditional" Tokyo, Japan when disaster struck.

On March 11 an earthquake hit, causing a tsunami to sweep across the country's central island. As of April 1, there had been 11,700 confirmed deaths and 16,000 people missing, two of which are close to friends of Error.

Within 10 minutes of the earthquake hitting, Error watched footage of the tsunami less than 200 miles north of where she was sitting in a cafe in Tokyo.

The disaster had an effect on Error.

"Any time someone would bump the table or see a light kind of swinging from air conditioning or a fan or something I'd freak out," she said.

Two days after the first quake and 24 hours after the first nuclear reactor had blown, Error "ran away" to South Korea. Her plan to head back to Japan was denied by her mother, who forced Error to take the flight Ohio State had set up from Seoul back to the U.S. Both the U.S. State Department and her home university strongly recommended Error come home.

But Error wants to go back.

She has made bonds with her friends in Tokyo and doesn't want to abandon them or her travels and studies.

The Forum on Education Abroad began a pilot project in 2010 to create an incident database for students abroad. The project found that from 29 institutions, 311 incidents were reported. Incidents ranged from severe illness to disease contraction to civil unrest.

In assisting these 311 incidents, 103 were members of U.S. staff, 41 were faculty and 212 were employees or program staff.

For Error and the University of South Carolina's Edward Walsh and Matthew Short, it was the university faculty that did the most legwork to get them out of their study abroad destinations.

There have been notable increases in the number of U.S. students going to study in less traditional destinations, according to the International Education Exchange's Open Doors report. Of the top 25 destinations, 15 were outside of Western Europe and 19 were countries where English is not a primary language, the report said.

At USC alone, interest in nontraditional destinations has risen. In the 2009-2010 school year, 14.4 percent of students studied in nontraditional regions compared to 9 percent in 2008-2009.

Campuses indicated they were seeing fewer study abroad budget and staff cuts and, to encourage foreign study, they were forming international partnerships.

Rachel Hardison, study abroad adviser at USC, said the university office has been redoubling marketing approaches to get students to go abroad. Beyond study abroad fairs and workshops, the office gave over 70 presentations in freshmen classrooms last semester and is targeting on-campus students.

Of 238 campuses, 55 percent said more students went abroad in 2009-2010, and more than 40 percent reported increases in those going to countries in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Institute of International Exchange "is working with educators and partners to increase the number and diversity of American students who go abroad and to encourage study in places of growing strategic importance to the United States," the report said.

Governmental programs like the National Security Education Program Boren Scholarships, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the Gilman International Scholarship program shell out thousands of dollars to send students to these countries of "strategic importance" to "prepare a new generation for global citizenship," according to the report.

Becoming global citizens was one of the reasons Walsh and Short chose Egypt to study abroad.

Protests to overthrow governmental regimes erupted in Tunisia, then Egypt, at the end of January. The two University of South Carolina students were studying there when the protests began the week of Jan. 20.

On Feb. 2, aided by an extraction agency hired by USC's study abroad office, they fled and joined a new study program in Morocco.

"We didn't want to leave. We had to," Short said.

Even with the protests and street violence, the pair said they wanted to stay in Egypt to stay close to friends and avoid the costs of their new program in Morocco. But USC would no longer accept credit from Egyptian institutions. So, Walsh and Short said, they realized they had to continue their education elsewhere.

"Sometimes the students don't want to leave, but the parents and even the university want them to," said USC study abroad adviser Rachel Hardison. "They also don't realize that they are members of the university."

If anything were to happen to students abroad, it would reflect on the university, which does all it can to help students in bad situations, Hardison said.

"We try to balance being realistic with students' wishes," she said.

The State Department issued travel warnings and recommended Americans avoid Japan and Egypt.

Universities did everything in their power to accommodate those trapped by conflict, all three students said – even more than the State Department. Ohio State University located and paid for Error's flight from South Korea to the U.S.

The USC study abroad office hired Red24, an extraction agency, to get Walsh and Short out of Egypt and did a lot of the work to get them relocated to a suitable program in another country. Both offices told students that if they chose to come back to the states, class schedules would be worked out, though Walsh and Short chose not to come back.

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