In the 1999-2000 academic year, 733 St. Thomas students studied abroad, and the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, does not seem to have negatively affected numbers since then.
For example, in 2003-04, 852 studied beyond the U.S. mainland. The favorite countries were England (118), Spain (106), Italy (89), Australia (52), France (23), Mexico (25) and China (21). Overall, students studied in more than 32 countries, including Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Japan and Tanzania.
"Fortunately, no St. Thomas students have encountered violence problems abroad," said Ann Hubbard, assistant director of the International Education Center. "We prepare extensively to ensure they have a good experience."
The center monitors the U.S. State Department's travel warnings Web site (www.travel.state.gov) which not only recommends that Americans avoid certain countries (25 are now on the list, from Indonesia to the Sudan) but also disseminates information quickly about terrorist threats and other short-term conditions that pose significant risks. For example, a St. Thomas class planning to volunteer in Haiti in spring 2004 was – when violence broke out in Haiti – rerouted by the center to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The government site also offers many services, including lists of doctors and hospitals abroad.
"All our students must attend orientations, where we discuss security issues," Hubbard explained. "We tell them to keep in touch with home (buying pay-as-you-go cell phones abroad is what most do), avoid public demonstrations of any kind, and keep a low profile. Regardless of your politics, it is a reality that there is some anti-American feeling out there. Though most students report no harassment, avoiding wearing U.S. T-shirts and baseball caps can help."
The university also keeps track of students abroad. In St. Thomas programs in Rome, Paris and Glasgow, and in almost all other university programs the center facilitates, students traveling on weekends must log out to specific destinations. In the unlikely event that the U.S. State Department recommends evacuating students, the center arranges for travel to a safe location or return home.
The advice most surprising to students and parents is that "a U.S. Embassy can only ensure due process within the local legal system," Hubbard said. "Our concept that one is innocent until proved guilty is not an international process. Fortunately, we have never had to deal with that problem.
"All of us in International Education are passionate about intercultural education. Nearly all of us have had a significant overseas living experience, speak a second language, and recognize the benefits of learning Ôoutside your comfort zone.' Call us biased, but we believe that studying abroad is the most rewarding endeavor a student can engage in. The personal skills and qualities gained become assets in one's professional life as well. It is such a pleasure to work with St. Thomas students who are willing to take on the challenges and reap the benefits of studying abroad."
Study-abroad booklet gives tips for safe travel
I'll never forget, as Colin and I headed out the door in Roseville to catch a plane to Ireland, asking him, "Have you got your extra pair of glasses? And extra contacts?"
"Relax, I got it all under control," he, 18, responded flatly, and ambled into the car carrying about 40 CDs and wearing all his visual aids – one pair of contact lenses.
It was a family vacation, with 20 of us in a bed-and-breakfast with surprisingly few – two – bathrooms! (But I digress.) Since we were all related, or almost, Colin felt confident enough that first night to leave his contacts soaking in a white styrofoam cup overnight on the larger bathroom's window sill.>
You can all guess what happened. His aunt cleaned up and out went the lenses. He shoulda read the St. Thomas pre-departure planning booklet!
Published by the International Education Center, it congratulates students on embarking on an adventure "guaranteed to change your life" and offers tips to make that trip trouble free.
This booklet supplements the orientation sessions that International Education requires of all students going abroad. It is compiled from numerous sources, with the most valuable being study-abroad returnees.
The booklet covers everything from how to pack (bring lots of socks and underwear because they don't take up much room) to travel insurance to adapter plugs to what guidebooks are helpful. Here are a few of the tips:
Finances: American Express offices abroad typically do not charge a fee for cashing traveler's checks. If using credit/ATM cards, remember that most low-budget establishments (McDonald's, etc.) do not accept them; a higher minimum amount is required abroad. Personal checks are not negotiable abroad. Parents should send cashier's checks; funds can be cabled through a bank.
Obtain just a little foreign currency ($50 to $100) so you'll have cash when you arrive. Large U.S. banks exchange money, as do airports – which require cash, not personal checks. Change money abroad using banks, airports or train stations for the best rates.
Documents: Make copies of passport and visa information, one to carry with you separately from your passport, and one to remain with your family at home. Also carry a certified copy of your birth certificate.
Medical: Tetanus and meningitis vaccines are recommended for all college age students because they live in close quarters, not just those going abroad. Bring medical records, a trip's supply of prescriptions, and if you wear glasses or contact lenses, take along an extra pair, plus your prescription. Bring usual over-the-counter medications, and include vitamins because your diet may change.
Legal concerns: When you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws. For example, the penalties for illegal drug use or possession are severe, in many cases tougher than in the United States. Be aware that U.S. officials only can visit, advise and contact your family. They cannot intercede in the legal process or pay your legal fees.
Use common sense: If you wouldn't camp out in a city park at home, then don't consider doing this abroad at night. Learn about cultural norms and talk to the nationals, not just to your American friends. Be streetwise. Women not only have the normal burden of sexism, but in many places also may have to deal with the notion that Western women might be promiscuous.
Contact the people who can help you now: Nearly every program has a contact director on-site. It does not make sense to call home and perhaps needlessly worry family and friends until you have discussed a problem with your program director.
Most down-to-earth tip: Carry packed luggage around the block before you leave! Repack if it is too heavy.
As for Colin, luckily, his sister joined us in 10 days and brought extra contacts and glasses – but he had a dim, being-nagged-at-to-his-amazement week. Seeing clearly again made him happy because he was anxious to start driving – on the "wrong" side of the road and testing the traffic vagaries of Ireland. He thought that the "roundabouts" (intersections similar to merry-go-rounds but using real cars) would be fun.