Staff Editorial: Steps for studying abroad

Imagine you are volunteering in a foreign country, teaching English to young children. One day, members of the military come and arrest you, and three days later, you are deported. For seven GW students, this scenario was a reality.

The students volunteered through the program “Learning Enterprises,” a nonprofit through which college students can teach English in a developing region of the world. Many of the details and motives of their arrests are unknown. But factors surrounding the incident worked against the students.

We don’t blame the circumstances of the arrest on the volunteers, but the lesson here is one all who study abroad should know. While going through a U.S.-based – even a GW-based – program may mean less hassle, it does not necessarily mean less preparation. Students must thoroughly research their projected destination and the region they will inhabit, especially when studying in underdeveloped or politically tumultuous countries.

A good place to look for information about a destination is the State Department’s Web site, which offers an alphabetical list of countries complete with a profile, background information and the ambassador’s name. It also features travel warnings issued to describe conditions that make a country unstable and potentially dangerous. Once you have secured your passport and the necessary visas, register with your destination’s nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate under the Web site’s study abroad page.

Going online is a start, but if your destination is listed on the warnings page, the next step should be to visit the State Department in person and meet with a representative. Face-to-face contact with a representative will be valuable for learning all you can about your host country, and can help ensure a stress-free and safe experience.

This is not meant to deter students from studying abroad. Programs are meant to be enjoyed, and usually are. But occasionally, an incident occurs that can drastically alter the trip for those involved. The experiences of the GW students in Ethiopia prove that an average day abroad can swiftly turn into a frightening and unprecedented saga. When you go, make sure you’re prepared.

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