Global conflict does not deter students from studying abroad

This story was originally published in the February 16 issue of Fourth Estate.

The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France and the rise of political strife in Russia and the Ukraine has caused worry among members of the Mason community looking to study abroad in these countries.

Just last summer, when fighting between Israel and Hamas broke out in Israel-Palestine, Mason cut a study abroad program short and students were sent home.

In Paris on Jan. 7, 2015, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by two gunmen, causing the city to go on high-alert until their death on January 9. The attack involved the two gunmen, brothers and several accomplices and spread out across Paris and the surrounding area. A CNN online report says that this attack has caused many French to worry about terrorists residing in their country.

Despite the rise in violence, Yehuda Lukacs, associate provost of International Programs and the director for the Center for Global Education, encourages students to still study abroad.

“Terrorism is a contemporary global phenomenon that has had a significant impact on international travel, including study abroad. However, an international experience such as studying abroad has become a must for anyone wishing to play a meaningful role in our emerging global society. The Center for Global Education (CGE) has an impeccable track record in terms of safeguarding its participating students and accompanying faculty,” Lukacs said via email.

Lukacs is not alone in his belief. Junior Kenia Zelaya said she trusted Mason and the CGE to protect her. Zelaya who studied abroad in London, England during the Charlie Hebdo attacks said that her and her fellow students received a safety orientation on their first night. She also believed that Mason and CGE would have been quick to respond if the need arose.

“We had a safety orientation on our first evening in London. We may have been pretty jetlagged but they made sure we knew the safety information as soon as possible,” Zelaya said.

Lukacs said that students receive a comprehensive briefing on safety and security before studying abroad, and then a more in depth safety briefing in the country that the student travels to. He also said that students are continuously reminded by the faculty of the safety procedures during their visit.

“Our faculty receives special training on handling emergencies, ranging from car accidents to terrorism. We are very mindful of potential dangers worldwide and spend a great deal of our time on safety and security issues,” Lukacs said.

Zelaya said she was scared during the Charlie Hebdo attacks because Paris was just a train’s ride away, but she knew she was ultimately safe.

“If any sort of chain reaction started, whether attacks or demonstrations, our visits could have been disrupted. But I knew before stepping on U.K. land that it was one of the safest places to travel to,” Zelaya said. “And safety is a concern wherever you go, you just have to be smart and know your surroundings as well as your sources in that area.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, the most recent major event being the annexation of Crimea to Russia, is another issue that has caused violent conflict in both countries.

Sophomore Matt Strickler, who plans to study abroad in Russia, is another student who has not been discouraged to study abroad. He said he knows that there are some concerns for studying in Russia, but feels it is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity that he wouldn’t want to miss.

“It will be a concern without a doubt, but I do not realistically see my life being in danger if I travel to Russia,” Strickler said. “The extreme nationalists are concerning, but there are many ways to avoid their attention. The war in Ukraine is [also] concerning because of possible escalation, but because of how far away I would be from the conflict, it will not stop me.”

Strickler said that if the fighting in Russia ever did become a problem, he trusts Mason, CGE and their protocols to know how to keep him safe. Lukacs who also talked about these protocols said that if need be, Mason would cancel the program.

“In the event of dangerous situation such as a revolution, large terrorist incident, war, or a natural disaster, the University would cancel the program. As part of their program fee, we sign up our students with an evacuation insurance that handles immediate extrications back to the United States,” Lukacs said.

Despite the possible risks of studying abroad in countries like France, Russia, and Israel-Palestine, Lukacs, Zelaya and Strickler said they encourage students to still study abroad.

“I would always recommend studying abroad to any country. However, I would also recommend being smart about their trip, especially to a volatile country,” Strickler said. “Know the people, know the political situation, know the controversial issues and know the culture as well as you can before going.”

Featured illustration by Laura Baker.