Study Abroad: A Risk You’re Willing to Take?

Students and LC’s Study Abroad Office Share the Precautions of Going Abroad


Published: December 13, 2007

The recent murder of 21-year-old Meredith Kercher, a British student studying abroad in Italy, has left some Fordham students and their parents with concerns about whether studying abroad is really safe. These fears can stem from the fact that many students abroad find themselves alone in a country far away from home, where they have a limited knowledge of the language and, worst of all, little power to reach an emergency contact.

“This is a very sad case that happened in Europe,” Ronald S. Mendez-Clark, director of International and Study Abroad Programs (ISAP) at Fordham University, said of the murder. “But we have singular cases happen in the United States and all over the world, so I do not know that this is something that tells us anything significant about study abroad and the perils or dangers involved with it.”

Nonetheless, Mendez-Clark said that students who are considering studying abroad as an option have to use  their own judgment to decide whether they think it is safe.

“It is not ISAP’s role to persuade students that they must go abroad and somehow take away their fears,” Mendez-Clark said. “Our role is to provide good and safe programs abroad to engage students in a conversation about the study abroad objectives and to help them have the experience if they are prepared to have that experience.”

Cindy Chou, FCLC ’09, who plans to study abroad in Italy during the spring semester, is not worried about her safety. “I’ve heard about [the murder] briefly, but it didn’t really concern me that much,” Chou said. The program that she plans to partake in fulfills her academic interests in both her art history major and her Italian minor.

Rachel Filippetti, FCLC ’08, who studied abroad in Paris, recalls a scary incident that happened to her during her semester abroad. “If you make eye contact with someone on the subway and hold it just a little bit too long, they’ll think that you want to have sex with them and they’ll follow you,” Filippetti said. Upon arriving in Paris, Filippetti lacked necessary knowledge about the culture. “Being interested, I would accidentally make eye contact, and I would have men get off the subway at my stop and follow me,” she said.

Mendez-Clark said that, while abroad, students must always be aware of their surroundings to ensure their safety. “[They] must have a sense of what the cultural norms are and what kind of stuff might be deemed offensive and dangerous,” Mendez-Clark said. “Being prudent and knowing when you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation is important. Also, not calling attention to yourself either by being too ostentatious in the way that you dress or the jewelry that you wear.”

Matt Conlin, FCLC ’09, is going to study in Dublin next semester, where he has visited a few times before. “Some parts of the city are less safe than others, but for the most part, it is safe if you know where you are going,” he said. Although Conlin thinks the chances of something happening to him are slim, his mother feels differently. “My dad thinks it’s a good idea, but my mom is having a panic attack,” he said. “She’s just worried; she doesn’t like the idea of me being alone. She feels like it’s so far away and that there’s no one to really contact [in case of an emergency] other than the school facilities, and they close after hours.”

Study abroad advisor Paloma Gutierrez said that it is natural for parents to be worried because of the distance and time away from their child or fear for his or her health and safety. “For most parents, it is a new experience, just like letting their kid go to college in the first place. A lot of parents end up coming around because they get to go visit the students, or the student comes back with a different perspective, more enthusiastic about academics or travel,” Gutierrez said.

In China, Quang D. Tran, FCRH ’08, said he has immersed himself in the culture. “I had a Chinese roommate, and I hung out with his friends; we practiced speaking Chinese all the time.” However, the downside of his experience was that most foreigners spent much of their time drinking at the bars. “You’d learn a lot more if you immerse yourself in the culture, not just spend time at the bar,” he said.

Despite the unwanted advances, Filippetti enjoyed her new found freedom in Paris. “The first three weeks there were amazing. I wasn’t 21 yet and there the drinking age is 18, so I went to every bar I could find and was out until sunrise,” she said. “I went out a lot, I drank a lot and met a lot of people.”

However, 90 percent of the incidents abroad involving students are alcohol-related, Mendez-Clark said. “It’s a way to become victims.”

Another issue for students abroad is the possible encounter with anti-American sentiment. In Paris, Filippetti said that she experienced anti-American sentiment first-hand. “Some crazy guy heard [my friend and I] speaking English to each other, then he started following and screaming, ‘You f***ing Americans,’ repeatedly at us,” she said.

“We live in very difficult times,” Mendez-Clark said. “Students definitely experience anti-American sentiment, and programs occasionally talk to students about it, and even offer suggestions as to how to handle that.” However, he said many returning students report that distinctions are made between the United States government and the people. “For the first time in their lives, [students] have seen their country with the eyes of someone else. This is a very unique experience, because they discover that people don’t like what we do and sometimes for very good reasons. They also find out that there are a lot of misconceptions about the United States out there,” Mendez-Clark said.

Nevertheless, Tran had a very different experience of being an American in China. “Americans are very welcome, but the unfortunate thing is that Chinese seem to treat Americans better than their own people.”

Mendez-Clark said that taking all the variants under consideration makes studying abroad a very serious decision for students. “Everybody should consider going abroad as an option, as something that may add something quite significant to their degree here, but it is ultimately a decision that has to be made after a lot of deliberation. I have come to think that study abroad [requires] three semesters of preparation: one semester to think about it, research and apply, one semester to do it and one semester to reflect on it,” he said.