Miriam Kelberg remembers waking up abruptly at a friend’s house to the sound of ambulance sirens sounding out one early morning in Brussels. The group chat with her Brussels friends had started blowing up, saying there was an “explosion” at the airport. Thinking this was an isolated incident, Kelberg was about to head back to her host family’s house when suddenly, she was warned not to leave by one of her friends. The metros were now under investigation, according to Twitter reports.
Terrorists had attacked Brussels. In the past 24 hours, she had visited the airport and the metro stations where random passersby had just been killed.
Kelberg, a senior who studied abroad in Belgium last spring, was among the seven University of Wisconsin students in the city during the attacks.
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ISIS claimed responsibility for the three coordinated bombings that took place March 22, 2016, killing 32 people and injuring more than 300 others.
“We jumped to the news for updates, and discovered it wasn’t just an accident – it was bombs and people were dying,” Kelberg said.
After the recent increase of terrorist attacks in developed economies and the tragic death of one of its students abroad in July 2016, UW took steps to ensure the safety and security of its students in foreign countries and re-emphasized the importance of the existing travel guidelines offered to prospective study abroad students.
International safety and concerns
Despite safety concerns abroad, International Academic Programs Director Dan Gold said campus-wide numbers of students studying abroad have been steady for the past decade. In the 2015-16 year, IAP had a 13 percent increase in numbers of students studying abroad compared to the previous year.
We jumped to the news for updates, and discovered it wasn’t just an accident – it was bombs and people were dying.Miriam KelburgUW ranks in the top 25 universities for number of students studying abroad, according to the 2016 Open Doors Data report published by the Institute of International Education. In the 2014-15 school year, UW ranked 16th in the U.S., with 2,152 students receiving academic credit abroad. For semesterlong programs, the university ranks No. 1 among U.S. public institutions.
With so many students abroad, UW maintains travel policies designed to ensure their safety.
Ron Machoian, UW’s international safety and security director, said there have not been any direct changes to safety and security protocols due to terrorism abroad. There has been more use of “ISSD’s Tips for International Travelers,” a document emphasizing awareness among travelers at risk of organized violence.
Machoian works with IAP, the International Division, other colleges and universities, the U.S. State Department, embassies and international insurers and agencies to ensure top security in each country. He also looks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, travel warning systems and the Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council.
“In the case of France and Belgium, despite the apparently increased threat condition there, the U.S. government and UW-Madison remain confident in both nation’s public governance and their ability to preempt and respond to such episodic violence,” Machoian said.
Machoian said a country is usually not added to the Department of State’s travel warning list due solely to a terrorist attack, but instead, due to a “complex combination” of factors associated with an increased risk of terrorist violence.
If a program is canceled before it starts, Gold said no fees are charged and IAP helps students find alternative programs. If a program is canceled while in progress, the credits and courses are handled case by case.
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There have been instances where programs have been shut down, discontinued or suspended for a period of time, such as Kenya during the spring and summer of 2015 and current programs in Turkey.
“We began watching Turkey closely more than a year ago and increasingly reached the shared, but unfortunate, conclusion that it was not a location to which we can confidently send UW-Madison students for the time being on university-affiliated travel,” Machoian said. “Because of this decision, we did not have students there during the failed coup.”
Becoming informed before departure
In addition to UW’s evaluation of conditions in foreign countries, students are encouraged to inform themselves about the countries they will be studying in.
Students are expected to be active partners in their own preparation for safe study abroad.Ron MachoianThe IAP website titled “Safety and Security,” provides links and information on State Department resources, consular information sheets, public announcements and travel warnings.
Gold recommends students become familiar with the information before departing, as the university provides significant resources to students for a reason.
The International Division of IAP requires all students take an online orientation, with many programs offering in-person orientation sessions led by a program leader, affiliate program provider or IAP staff member.
Along with the orientations, each study abroad student is provided a program-specific handbook that provides information on finances, academics, checklists, travel logistics and health and safety concerns.
“Students are expected to be active partners in their own preparation for safe study abroad,” Machoian said. “Attending orientations, actually reading the provided materials, asking any questions they might have about the content therein or relevant contemporary topics and engaging with other students who recently returned.”
Despite educational steps such as these, not every incident can be anticipated.
Along with the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, France, Germany and Turkey, the death of UW student Beau Solomon in Rome raised concerns among students and parents about the safety of Western European study abroad programs.
UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued a statement after Solomon’s death noting, “there is no indication of a broader risk to students or others in Rome or elsewhere.”
Along with this isolated incident, there have been threats from terrorist groups among Western European countries impacting students abroad.
These attacks are random and could happen anywhere, including here in Madison.Megan OttoKelberg, in Brussels, was instructed by her friends to stay at a friend’s house and avoid the metro station. She remained inside all day “like most of the rest of the city.” She received emails from IAP with safe location recommendations in the city while asking her to check-in.
While there was no talk of canceling her program, Kelberg said a student decided to go back home and the rest of the group discussed how to carry on after the incident. There were no stricter precautions put in place, but the program asked students to notify them when deciding to travel elsewhere.
She remembers the day, and subsequent days, to be very tense, but people were supportive. Taxis gave out free rides to take people home as public transportation shutdown.
“After the attack I sometimes felt unsafe, especially right after,” Kelberg said. “At the metro stop by my house, the police shot someone who they thought was bringing in a bomb a few days after the attacks. Everyone was tense on the metros for like a week.”
Despite this, the incident did not deter Kelberg from traveling.
“We can’t live our lives in fear and never leave our homes,” Kelberg said. “These attacks are chance, but it’s a tiny chance.”
Preparing for the unexpected
Gold said students have a strong responsibility to be proactive in learning about potential security concerns specific to program and location.
“The final decision to participate on a study abroad program is up to the student, and their family,” Gold said. “That is a highly personal decision for which there is not one right or wrong answer.”
The university can only do so much when preparing students for international travel, though a student would never be sent somewhere UW deemed unsafe.
Clare Woessner, an interdepartmental administrator at the Foundation for International Education works with UW and IAP to ensure the safety of its students.
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Woessner, who works in London, said FIE has a comprehensive emergency incident response plan, which is reviewed annually. Despite recent circumstances, Woessner, who has lived in London for six years, considers traveling around Europe to be safe.
“I maintain that [London] is one of the safest cities in Europe, and certainly safer than many American cities,” Woessner said.
Megan Otto, a sophomore studying abroad in London this semester, said she was fully aware of the recent attacks in Europe. Her mother was incredibly nervous for her to travel abroad alone, but Otto had a different perspective on her upcoming experience.
While Otto said she understood the dangers of being a visitor in a foreign country, she made plans to stay in safer places around Europe, walk in big groups and keep a lookout for suspicious activity.
“These attacks are random and could happen anywhere, including here in Madison,” Otto said. “I understand that is highly unlikely, but I also know that it is not everyday that you hear about terrorist attacks in London.”
While the probability of being the victim of a high profile attack is low Machoian said it’s important to be prepared.
Machoian urges students to carry an international phone and enroll for international insurance and the U.S. Department’s Smart Traveler program.
Machoian said travelers should remain in groups of two or more when in public and never drink alcohol to the point where it decreases situational awareness.
Gold said it’s important to take precautions no matter the situation or location.
“While all risks cannot be eliminated, we take numerous steps to ensure that our international programs operate in safe environments while providing rewarding educational experiences,” Gold said.