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Far From Home

Despite world unrest, UCSB students venture abroad

By Sophia Fischer


Ana Velarde Leycegui ’17 was in a Paris restaurant in November, 2015, with UC Santa Barbara friends when her stepmother messaged her: Are you okay? Leycegui, a UCSB senior, texted back: Yes. Having dinner, why? A few blocks away, terrorist attacks had just been carried out by gunmen and suicide bombers in multiple locations leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. As police searched for suspects, Paris shut down under a state of emergency. Leycegui and friends quickly returned to her nearby apartment.

“We were on lockdown for two days. We entertained ourselves and had whatever food I had,” recalled Leycegui, in Paris on a University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). “The attacks happened where there are lots of tourists. It could easily have been where my friends and I were. It was scary.”

UNWAVERING INTENTION

For students like Leycegui, international unrest has meant increased determination to study abroad despite the violence, and at times redirected them due to the suspension of programs in turmoil areas such as Egypt, Turkey, Chile and Mexico. Europe locations with enrollment drops have been consolidated or closed for economic restructuring including in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Hungary. Study abroad in Mexico had been popular, but drug-trafficking violence has left options only in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Chile had several active locations but faculty strikes that left students with empty schedules resulted in one Santiago institution option.

“These events seem to be giving students the moral justification to go out into the world rather than put their heads in the sand. They want to be more involved,” said Juan Campo, faculty director of the UCSB Education Abroad Program and an associate professor. “For 2017-18, we have 300 more applications than in the past. That’s encouraging.”

The numbers have fluctuated since 891 UCSB students studied abroad in 2007-08, alternating up and down each year and rising to the highest level ever in 2015-16 with 1,046, then dropping to 981 this year. Since 1963, UCEAP has sent more than 100,000 students abroad, of which UCSB students make up 20 percent. UCSB students have 400 program options in 40 countries.

CHANGING DIRECTION

A political science major with an emphasis in international relations, Lola Maraiyesa ’17 was disappointed that the popular UC Egypt program had closed in 2011 after the Egyptian government was overthrown and the U.S. State Department put Egypt on its travel warning list. A new Jordan option opened as a Middle East alternative to Israel and Morocco, the only other UC study abroad destinations in the region. For the 2016-2017 academic year, three UCSB students studied in Jordan, including Maraiyesa. Next year, 11 are slated to go. Maraiyesa lived with a host family in Amman, improved her Arabic and did an internship at the Arab Institute for Security Studies.

“The state of the world can make anyone’s head spin and needs more attention,” Maraiyesa said. “I’m interested in learning about international security policies and hopefully contributing to how those policies are made. I had a phenomenal experience.”

Interest in studying abroad in Asia including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, has doubled since 2010 from 85 students to 168 this year.

“People want non-traditional destinations because of the incidents in Europe, lower cost and for opportunities not present in other programs,” Campo said.

Global Studies major Alijah Rivera ’17 had planned to study in Spain last fall but changed his mind after hearing from fellow UCSB students about Singapore. He was surprised by how secure he felt in Singapore.

“UCSB is very nice but my class went through the I.V. tragedy and to go somewhere that is so safe you don’t have to worry about going home alone late at night was cool to experience,” Rivera commented.

BOOSTED SECURITY

Safety measures have developed since study abroad was established in the 1960s at UCSB, considered the flagship UCEAP campus. Student well-being has always been the priority, said Myla Edmond, UCEAP Marketing and Communications director, but what’s changed in recent years is the increase in simultaneous incidents that require close watch.

“We are more proactive with outreach. For example, there was recent concern about safety in Korea due to news reports. We monitored the situation and reassured students and parents that we were aware of the rhetoric,” Edmond said. “We’re paying attention even before a situation happens.”

The UCEAP in-house risk management team monitors news reports, U.S. and other government sources, private security information, and intelligence websites 24/7 to identify risks or emergencies that may impact UCEAP students, faculty and staff. Students participate in orientations in which safety and security issues are covered and are warned to maintain a low profile, avoid demonstrations and large public gatherings, share travel plans and maintain contact with program hosts.

“In the past five to 10 years, we have updated how we communicate with study abroad students,” Campo said. “As soon as they arrive in their host country they provide us with contact information. If they change housing or leave town they let us know where they’re going. We follow up with students and prepare them to avoid situations that could be potentially dangerous and we get students out quickly if there’s danger.”

There is a check-in process when anything happens, even in locations where there are no UCEAP programs because students often travel from their host countries to other locales. When the suicide bombing took place at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, in May, UCEAP security went into quick response checking in with six UCSB students studying abroad in Manchester. All were confirmed safe. After a terror attack on a bridge in London in March killed three and injured 29, UCEAP quickly contacted every student studying in London as well as those in nearby locations. When three suicide bombings occurred in Belgium in March, 2016, UCEAP students were promptly messaged to ensure their safety despite there not being a UCEAP program in Brussels.

“Everybody was okay and wanted to stay,” said Emily Tom-Atzberger, associate director UCSB Education Abroad Program. “When we contact students, they are usually pretty good about responding because they know it’s in their best interest.”



EYE-OPENING

Hannah Gunter ’17, a communication major, chose Cape Town, South Africa, for her winter/spring 2016 study abroad destination because she knew little about the region and wanted to challenge herself to learn about an unfamiliar place.

“Cape Town has one of the highest crime rates in the world,” Gunter said. “We were warned to always stay in groups, never walk home alone, not take drinks from strangers and watch belongings. We had a security guard patrolling our street 24/7.”

Student campus protests, sometimes violent and resulting in arrests, were a common occurrence. The entire campus shut down for safety reasons shortly after Hannah returned home, but she loved her experience in Cape Town and emphasized the importance of interacting with people of different cultures and backgrounds.

“It makes me realize the importance of acknowledging different perspectives.”

Like Gunter, despite the turmoil, Leycegui was impressed by Parisian resilience. She saw people lined up outside hospitals to donate blood to attack victims, and restaurants that had been the site of shootings quickly reopen. After the attacks, several of Leycegui’s classmates from other countries cut their stay short but Leycegui opted to stay.

“I saw Paris at its lowest but I also saw how strong it was in its recovery,” Leycegui said. “What happened didn’t negatively affect my experience. Paris is a very safe place and I would go back. It was the best year of my life so far.”


Read expanded interviews with study abroad students about their overseas experiences here.