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Study abroad sees difficult semester

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MARCH 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Political uprisings in numerous Middle Eastern countries and a disaster in Japan have kept study-abroad offices on their toes and in touch with students abroad this semester.

“This semester has had the most challenges in terms of study abroad and security of students,” said Janis Perkins, the director of the University of Iowa Office of Study Abroad.

And officials at many universities nationwide echo Perkins.

UI officials monitor the safety and security of the 300 students studying abroad in 30 countries. Decisions to cancel programs and advise students to return home is weighed heavily, Perkins said.

“I’ve been doing this professionally for 26 years, and I can count on one hand the number of students we’ve had to bring home,” she added.

The UI has yet to warn its students to come home from either Egypt or Japan this semester, although one left Egypt voluntarily.

At Michigan State University, Julie Friend serves as the international analyst for travel health, safety, and security. She said she’s only one of nine in a similar position throughout the country, including the New York University and the University of California system.

Friend said officials added her position as studying abroad became a bigger part of the undergraduate experience. In addition to scanning the daily news bulletins from agencies such as the Overseas Security Advisory Council, Friend said, her usual day includes reading at least six publications focusing on countries of “higher concern.”

And while many events have occurred nearly simultaneously this year, the tumult isn’t unique. Friend said having to deal with numerous issues at once is the “new norm,” citing last year’s Chilian earthquake and travel warnings for Mexico.

“As a country and as an educational environment at the college level, international engagement is increasingly a part of our core mission,” she said. “Because of that, it is going to require us to consider entering into environments that entail risk. I just think we know more about dangers that already exist.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison officials suspended their programs in Egypt and Japan this semester. Wisconsin spokesman John Lucas said suspending its two programs has been a rare and unfortunate occurrence — advising students studying in Egypt and Japan to pack their bags and come home.

University officials made the call based on U.S. travel-security warnings as well as some students proximity to Tokyo, near where the earthquake hit.

“It does cause extra work and assistance on behalf of the students coming home,” Lucas said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison isn’t alone. Temple University, which has a large branch campus in Tokyo, offered to fly 200 students back home. Numerous other schools have evacuated students from areas of concern, such as Egypt, and some have closed their study-abroad programs there, according to the New York Times.

Amanda Marble, one of eight UI students studying in Japan, said she’s seen many fellow students pulled back to the United States by their universities.

Marble, who resides in southern Japan, said it’s been her dream to go to the Asian country, and she wouldn’t think of leaving.

“I have nothing to worry about where I am, so I have no reason to end my study-abroad experience early,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Besides that, what would I do upon my return — start classes at Iowa two months into the semester? It makes no sense.”

The UI made the decision to end classes early last spring for students in Mexico when the outbreak of H1N1 hit. She said the office is watching Mexico again and anticipates suspending its summer program because of the heightened drug violence.


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