GW students rethink decision to study abroad

GW is encouraging students to continue with plans to study abroad next semester but with an added note of caution. With anti-American sentiments flaring in many countries in the wake of a war on terrorist in the Middle East, students abroad said advice to hide their American roots is well-grounded.

Director of GW’s Office for Study Abroad Lynn Leonard said students living abroad should keep a low profile, advising them not to hang out or travel with large groups of Americans. She also recommends students vary their routines while overseas and not wear distinctive American clothing.

GW currently has 236 students studying in other countries this semester, she said.

“You have to understand you are more visible as an American abroad, so you should consider that as you travel overseas,” she said.

The office has received phone calls from parents with children abroad and those debating about going in the spring. Leonard said parents call because they want to make informed decisions and be reassured that their kids will be safe.

Some students currently abroad advised students to take the new warnings seriously.

Bridget Belknap, a junior studying in Aix-en-Provence, France, through the Institute for American Universities, said anti-American sentiment is high overseas and described her experience as “surreal.”

“We’ve been through various meetings and information sessions through our program, telling us to be discreet, never travel in large groups and basically pretend we’re not Americans for our own safety,” she said.

Belknap said she has heard reports of Americans being attacked.

“While we read in the papers about Arab-Americans being targeted in hate crimes in the U.S., here it’s quite the opposite,” she said. “Here, there are Americans getting beat up and harassed.”

Other students abroad said they have felt very little anti-American sentiment overseas. Living in Argentina this semester, Tova Mannis said she feels safe in her host country.

“Argentina is probably a safer place than most at the moment since it is pretty isolated from the events and the politics in the U.S.,” she said.

Despite her safe experience so far, Mannis said students should be aware that Americans are not popular in many areas.

“Just be careful who you talk to and what you say,” she said. “Never let your guard down because although I have had very few negative experiences, there is a lot of resentment towards the United States abroad.”

Even with fears circling around studying abroad, GW has not seen a decrease in applications for spring semester programs or a change in where they are applying, Leonard said.

“We are not completely done with the application process, but our preliminary analysis shows there is no tremendous change in where students are applying,” she said. “Our school sends very few students to the Mid-East; students tend to travel to Western Europe, and the same is true to this year.”

The study abroad office has received about 300 applications for next semester – which Leonard said is average – that are mostly for Western Europe. Most students apply to GW’s study centers in Madrid and Paris and only a handful generally apply to exchange and affiliated programs in Morocco, Turkey, Jordan and India. Numbers of applications for those areas were unavailable.

Leonard said GW is allowing students to go on all programs available, and she does not expect any to be canceled. The University sent 600 students to 40 countries last year with one-third of the junior class traveling overseas.

Guaranteeing the safety of every student in every country is impossible, Leonard said. She said the office works closely with students in orientation sessions, teaching them safety precautions and informing them of the resources available abroad.

Safety concerns have prompted some students to reconsider their travel plans.

“I’ve already decided that I can’t go abroad in the spring,” junior Randi Retter said. “As an international affairs major, I had every intention on going away next semester, but I’m worried about what kind of backlash I would get as an American abroad right now.”

GW is not the only university with a concerned student body.

Boston University’s overseas program director Ben DeWinter said he has heard from worried students and parents. BU sends almost 20 percent of its students to international programs every year, he said.

“We work closely with resident directors in all the countries we send students to make sure they are safe,” DeWinter said.

Leonard said several programs are trying to help students decide whether to travel overseas by extending deadlines and being more flexible on refunds for their deposits.

Junior Rich Reinemann said he intends to participate in the GW Madrid program next semester if accepted.

“Before September 11, I never really thought about there being a threat to my safety, but now I am definitely going to be more cautious overseas,” Reienemann said. “(The attack) proves to me that D.C. is no safer than anywhere else, so there is really no reason not to go abroad.”

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