Study Abroad is (Still) Worth the Risk

The November 13th attack in Paris killed 130 people and was the worst violence suffered in Paris since World War II.  Among those killed was American exchange student Nohemi Gonzalez, a junior at Cal State Long Beach.  As a student who has always planned on studying abroad, the recent terror attacks in Europe and across the globe have been unnerving.  Students and their parents are now more aware than ever of the risks of leaving the relative safety of their stateside college campuses.  This fear, while understandable, has not—and should not—substantially deter students from pursuing the opportunity of studying abroad.

According to the Institution of International Education, studying abroad for credit by American students has risen from 130,000 to more than 300,000 annually over the last 15 years.  These record-breaking numbers might be primed for a downturn.  But is there really a greater chance of American students being killed in international terror incidents than in terror attacks, mass shootings, or even freak accidents in the United States?

The terror attacks of March 22nd in Brussels targeted centers of mass transit.  According to CNBC, “Soft targets are called soft for a reason— they're easy for a terrorist to strike, and nearly impossible for well meaning businesses and individuals to defend.”  Several American institutions cut short their study abroad programs in the wake of the Belgian incidents.  For example, Texas Tech and Freed-Hardman University both recently suspended study abroad programs in Belgium and required their students to return.  It is still too soon, however, to know whether there will be a stark fall in study abroad programs or applicant pools.  According to information collected by the Institute of International Education, there was no decline in American students studying in Spain (or Europe) following the bombings of 2004 and 2005. 

Although the threat of terrorism appears omnipresent, students should employ reasonable safeguards that do not involve staying locked in a dormitory.  Many universities, including the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, were already employing communication protocols when the terror attacks happened in Brussels.  Since phones were jammed, the university made contact with all students via email and social media.  According to Next Avenue, a news source related to PBS, students should take the following precautions:

1. Be familiar with your surroundings and be alert.

2. Review U.S. Department of State travel information for your travel destination.

3. Register with the U.S. Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

4. Be aware of the nearest U.S. Embassy.

5. Make sure to have the contact information for your study abroad advisors and local emergency services.

6. Make sure you have a cell phone that works.

If American students are deterred from studying abroad, then they are playing into the goals of the terrorists – to intimidate and spread terror.  Thus, it is important for Americans students to rationally look at the facts.  According to the Quebec-based Centre for Research on Globalization, one is much more likely to die in a car accident or a freak accident than in a terror attack.  According to political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart, the risk of dying in a terror attack is 1 in 3.5 million.  Compare this to the risk of dying in accidents associated with the following appliances: 1 in 19,000 for a car, 1 in 950,000 for a bathtub, 1 in 1.5 million for a home appliance, 1 in 2 million for a deer, and 1 in 2.9 million for a commercial airliner.  

Terrorism appears to be the new normal, at least in Western Europe.  Is it frightening?  Yes.  But this small incremental increase in risk is not worth missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity.