Safety concerns haven't sidelined study abroad at U-M
For the first 20 years of his life, Scott Unger never had lived more than 30 minutes away from his home in Ann Arbor. That changed in October when the third-year political science major packed his bags and headed to Fukuoka, Japan, for 10 months of study abroad.
"I proved that I was able to fly across the world and live by myself for a year," he says.
Last year more than 1,000 U-M students studied abroad in almost 50 countries, says Carol Dickerman, program director of the Office of International Programs (OIP). Slightly more than half of those students went on OIP programs, which are designed specifically for undergraduates and are officially sponsored by the University. The remaining students joined programs sponsored by other schools. An additional 400 participated in programs for work, internships and volunteering abroad made available through the International Center's Overseas Opportunities Office.
"Study abroad is the one time in their lives when students are likely to have the opportunity to spend significant amounts of time in a country, immersed in that culture," Dickerman says.
With immersion, however, comes the potential for health or safety risks, she says. Due to 9-11, SARS and the war in Iraq, these risks have become important concerns in recent years.
"The safety issue is something we monitor," Dickerman says. "OIP will not sponsor a program in a country where the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning."
Students who choose to study independently in a country with a travel warning should consult with the International Travel Oversight Committee (ITOC) (http://www.umich.edu/~itoc), says Bill Nolting, director of overseas opportunities at the International Center. Nolting's office provides a weekly e-newsletter that centralizes information from the half-dozen offices on campus that offer study, scholarship and work abroad programs and serves as the liaison to students involved with programs not sponsored by U-M.
Though the University cannot guarantee every student's safety, many precautions are taken to ensure students will not be in danger while overseas, he and Dickerman say.
"We have discussions and meetings with staff and providers we work with abroad. We talk to U.S. embassy people about the risks in the country. We speak to faculty members who are area specialists," Dickerman says.
Nolting and Dickerman say the University has been fortunate thus far, largely because it prepares for potentially harmful events before they happen. Policies are set by the ITOC.
As it stands now, the primary causes of injury to students are found just as readily in Ann Arbor as any other city in the world.
"The two biggest threats are alcohol-related incidences and traffic accidents," Dickerman says. "Your judgment is not good when you have too much to drink, and students in Britain and Australia have to remember to look in the right direction before they cross the street."
Both Unger and Alyse Erman, who spent eight months in Thailand, felt safe in their respective countries, even as conflicts erupted during Erman's stay.
"When the war broke out we had a plan to leave campus and get to our program staff's house in the village in the event of anti-Americanism, but it was never put into use," says Erman, a recent graduate of the Residential College.
Unger, who still is in Japan, feels more secure there than he does in the United States.
"It is just a very good feeling to not have to lock your door or be able to leave your books sitting on a library desk," he says.
Despite safety concerns, study abroad remains an important part of the educational process for U-M students by allowing them to experience first-hand how others in the global community perceive the United States, Dickerman says.
"It is healthy for people to learn not everyone thinks of us as a benign entity," Dickerman says.
After college, Nolting says, study and work abroad experience gives students an extra advantage in the job market. "With the economy becoming more global, people who have international experience do well," he says, "Languages are especially important."
Students say they gain a new sense of confidence by overcoming cultural barriers and being self-sufficient in a foreign county. Unger has surrounded himself with people who speak no English so he can become proficient in Japanese, and Erman worked to bring a group of non-governmental organizations to visit an island in order to help the people organize against government policies that would adversely change their lives.
"When I was abroad I had a new sense of accomplishment and efficiency," she says. "Because I was able to actually implement a lot of my new ideas, I was empowered in an unbelievable way."