Scared to study abroad? Do it anyway


(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

By Sarah Shearer | For The Pitt News

I was in the candy aisle of a bookstall April 19 when I first heard the emergency alarms and looked up to see the main concourse of London Euston Train Station in a dark frenzy.

I grabbed my bag, shuffled out the nearest exit and stood outside with other travelers for almost half an hour before someone announced over the loudspeakers that no more trains would depart from Euston that day. I had no clue what was happening until a kindly woman with cell service told us that there was an electrical fire on the train tracks that cut off the power at the station.

I’m grateful to say that this incident was accidental, but standing in London Euston Train Station surrounded by panicked travelers with my eardrums rattling from the harsh alarm, terrorism was my immediate fear. I was fortunate enough to make it home safely, that this last week of my study abroad semester didn’t end in the way that some tragically do — but not all travelers are as lucky.

Terror has almost grown to be a norm in western Europe, where most college students tend to spend their time studying abroad. Even after tragic events in major European cities like Stockholm, London and Barcelona — which are hubs for college students — we cannot let fear of the possibility of attack deter us from learning firsthand about the world we live in.

Vanessa Sterling — Pitt Study Abroad associate director of health, safety and security — said student enrollment in programs actually increased from approximately 1,300 in 2011 to 1,900 in 2016, despite a heightened media awareness of terrorism in Western Europe.

“When the recent Paris, Brussels and London attacks happened, we offered academic accommodation to students if they wished to leave but none did — all stayed and finished their programs,” Sterling said.

We need to recognize that these students’ decision to remain abroad for the duration of their program is a testament to the way staff — both in Pitt’s offices and on site abroad — work to create safe and secure environments for their students even when the world around them might not be as such.

Sterling said Pitt Study Abroad completes a thorough analysis of each site and provides all students SOS insurance, which includes coverage for both physical and mental medical care as well as emergency evacuation. Students getting ready to go abroad have the option of enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to register their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and receive immediate alerts in case of an emergency in their city.

Pitt junior and biology major Tiana Han said using these services helped her feel safe during her study abroad program this past summer in Aix-en-Provence, France.

“I monitored any terrorist activity through those alert apps … going abroad was the best experience ever,” she said. “Obviously be cautious, but don’t hold back.”

Of course, an app or alert can only do so much to protect you in a dangerous situation. In the case of a shooting, a cellphone isn’t going to take the bullet for you. Nonetheless, tools like these are at our fingertips and help us to have a heightened awareness of our surroundings — which, in a terror attack, could save your life.

Another student, Pitt junior Dani Danucalov, also spent her summer in France and experienced the scare of terrorism firsthand.

“At no point did I feel unsafe even with everything happening … I was on the Champs Elysees when an attack happened, and I thought the police did a great job of making the area safe again,” Danucalov said of the June 19 incident when a driver deliberately crashed into a police van on the popular street.

Even though attacks like this seem to be increasingly frequent in major European cities and have a strong media presence, we must not lose perspective of the truth behind the leading causes of death.

More than 300 Europeans died from terrorist attacks in 2016 — a strikingly small number in contrast to approximately 25,500 EU members who died in a road-related accident in the same year.

Unplanned deaths like car accidents can happen stateside just as easily as they can abroad, and the unfortunate fact of the matter is just that — they can happen. And when they do, it is just as devastating for those affected as a planned attack.

Pitt Study Abroad experienced only one student fatality since its founding in 1981— the 2013 death of rising senior Oeshae Morgan, who suffered a tragic accident while interning in Spain.

This unprecedented event in Pitt’s history should serve as a reminder that tragedy can strike anywhere. Most of us have been affected in one way or another by a terrible accident, but we should not let fears like this drive us away from stepping out and experiencing another culture’s way of life, no matter how recent terrorism may paint Europe in a negative light.

In fact, stepping out could be a victory in itself. Todd Garfield, a junior accounting and finance major at Pitt, believes that letting fear control your travel decisions lets the terrorists win, which he says “is what we don’t want to do.”

Garfield studied abroad in London this past summer and was present during the attack at Borough Market.

“I’ll admit, it’s scary. When it happens you don’t know what to do and you need a day to think,” he said. “But after it happened it made me value my time and life so much more.”

Sterling also believes in the positive effect studying abroad has on students at a time like this, and said she thinks there’s never been a more important time to study abroad than now.

“I believe these cross-cultural experiences actually make our world safer, as it is harder to blindly hate someone you’ve met, it’s harder to reject a culture you’ve experienced first hand, and moving outside of your native culture can greatly increase your empathy to all others who do the same,” Sterling said.

Terror can shake any city in any country, so visit them anyway. Studying abroad is an experience that will deeply and uniquely shape your life story. What a shame it would be to let fear write yours for you.