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For Students Studying Abroad, International Unrest Presents Hard Decisions


Recent terror attacks in places like Nice, Bangladesh and Paris have taken the lives of residents and visitors alike, including those of American students studying abroad. As a result, some colleges and universities are making the hard decision to suspend or scale back their international programs in countries where there's unrest.

Elizabeth Redden covers international higher education, including study abroad programs for the online publication Inside Higher Ed. She's here to help us get a big picture view of what's going on. Hi, Elizabeth.


CHIDEYA: In your reporting, you're plugging into a lot of colleges and universities and their study abroad programs. What have you learned about how universities are responding to violence and unrest abroad?

REDDEN: How universities usually respond to unrest in places in the world and how they manage safety risks, I think they use a lot of indicators to determine whether it's still safe to maintain programs in a particular location. But probably the number one indicator that most universities use, at least in the U.S. that is, is the U.S. State Department travel warning.

CHIDEYA: Do we have any sense of whether enrollment is dropping for study abroad programs?

REDDEN: Well, it's a little early to know for sure. We don't have any good comprehensive data yet on whether there's been a decrease in study abroad enrollments in certain countries.

What I would say is that, you know, study abroad participation has been steadily growing in recent years, and a lot of colleges have been aggressively pushing to expand study abroad participation further. My sense is that that growth will probably continue, though, possibly at a slower rate if students and parents grow increasingly concerned about safety issues, particularly in Europe, which is where the majority of American students study abroad - more than half.

CHIDEYA: And, of course, you know, we've seen attacks recently in different cities in Paris, also in Brussels. Is there a precedent historically? I mean, I was looking over some of the European terrorism numbers, and 2004 was a particularly bloody year in Spain. Have there been other periods of time or other high profile incidents that have changed how administrators, parents and students think about study abroad programs?

REDDEN: Definitely. I think, certainly, generally speaking, universities, I think, have grown increasingly sophisticated about safety risks in recent years. But study abroad's been affected by terror attacks before. The largest scale incident that I can think of was actually back in 1988 when 35 Syracuse university students were among those who were killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

You mentioned Spain and England. There were the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London subway bombings in 2005. I think it is interesting to note that study abroad did continue to grow in those destinations, even after those attacks. But universities have grown, and study abroad providers, I think, have grown more sophisticated in terms of the various protocols they have in place to try to deal with incidents like this.

CHIDEYA: And international study and student exchange has historically been a really valuable avenue for what some people call soft diplomacy - people from different parts of the world exchanging ideas and getting to know each other as young people and building trust. Does it worry you that this type of cultural exchange might be in danger of going away or at least diminishing?

REDDEN: I think there is reason to be concerned when students aren't able to travel freely to parts of the world where people-to-people contacts could be useful. I mean, I think particularly about the Middle East - it wasn't very long ago that significant numbers of American students were studying in Syria and Egypt as well, which is a place where study abroad numbers have dropped in recent years due to safety concerns. And now we also have Turkey where there have been pretty robust study abroad programs and a lot of universities have suspended their programs there. There's fewer and fewer countries that students can go to these days compared to even five or six years ago.

CHIDEYA: Elizabeth Redden covers international higher education including study abroad for the online publication Inside Higher Ed. Elizabeth, thank you.

REDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.