In the light of the current political climate the world is experiencing, it is common for students to feel scared or anxious about traveling so far from home for an extended period of time. Every time a new tragedy strikes, there is a question of whether or not that place is safe. Experts study the security and reforms of the place that was affected, and these tragedies come to the forefront of our lives. News coverage becomes overwhelmingly negative and pessimistic at these times, and fear is implanted in citizens around the entire globe. While it’s natural to feel paranoid, it is important to understand the appropriate precautions to take and how to react to these incidents.
If you are planning to travel to a country that you feel is unsafe, I want to assure you that you can have a successful experience. As a student who traveled abroad to France in the spring of 2015, in the wake of the Paris attacks, I can assure you that in many cases, the worst thing to do would be to cancel your existing plans.
After the most recent terrorist attack in Paris, I was bombarded with emails from the U.S. Department of State, my education abroad partner program, and UK’s Education Abroad Office. They all expressed basically the same message: “the French and American embassies are working closely to monitor the recent events in Paris and you will be notified of any security measures or travel warnings”… or something along those lines. At this point, I was extremely saddened for the French community, but I was also frantically worrying that my study abroad program would be cancelled because of difficulties getting into the country, and that all the work that I had put into choosing a program, submitting my application, and finalizing my visa, would be wasted. It had always been an expectation that I would study abroad during my college experience, and I was not willing to give that up. I refused to let someone take that away from me.
One thing I want to emphasize in this post is that UK does a great job of keeping its education abroad students informed. Communication is a strong point in the office, and after interning with them for a semester I have gotten the opportunity to learn about how they handle global security threats. Student safety is a priority, and I want to urge Kentucky students that you would never be sent to a country that is considered dangerous.
The biggest thing I learned about safety and handling security threats – particularly terrorist activity – came about halfway through my trip, when the Brussels attacks occurred. I remember being in class in the morning and my classmates and I uncovering the news via Twitter. This was truly the first time I felt threatened. I don’t know if it was because Brussels was suddenly so much closer to me, or the fact that I felt like I had developed a tight bond to people I had met from all over Europe, but I remember feeling extremely emotional and saddened by the events. Truthfully, it had hit me so much harder than the Paris attacks did while I was still in my little U.S. bubble… before I had the opportunity to travel to countries all across Europe and experience what it meant to be a global citizen.
Of course, with my luck, my friends and I had just recently booked a two-week long spring break trip to several cities, one of them including Brussels. I remember being pulled out of class to talk to my program coordinator and the French liaison; they encouraged me to cancel my plans to travel to Brussels and replace it with a different city. But at this point, I was angry. I was mad that my program coordinator – the person who is supposed to unconditionally love traveling and experiencing new languages and cultures – was telling me that it would be better to not take such a risk. He told me everything that I didn’t want to hear, instead of saying “you’ll be safe, don’t worry”, “the Belgian government is taking all the necessary measures to investigate and prevent any future attacks”, or “don’t let terrorism win”.
Rather than taking their advice and cancelling my trip (which would have been a nightmare, not to mention), I kept trying to convince myself that I was doing the right thing by going. The closer spring break was, the more paranoid I would get. But ultimately the support that all of the American students on my program gave to each other outweighed my fears and worries. Articles were being shared on Facebook about how to travel safely in the wake of terrorism and why traveling is more important than ever in such cases.
One of the biggest takeaways from my education abroad experience was to not let a one-time incident deter you from chasing your goals. If I did that, I would probably be living in a box on a secluded island. I’m from Chicago and I go to school in Lexington… these cities are nowhere near perfect, yet for some reason we find safety and comfort in these place we call home. I am so grateful for my study abroad experience because it has led me to vow that I will never let a horrible event define a place and prevent me from seeing all that it has to offer.
Casey is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying French and international economics at the University of Kentucky. She studied abroad in France at l’Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie in spring 2016.