A recent warning by the U.S. State Department has left many schools wondering if it is safe to send their students abroad.
The warning, issued on October 3rd, cautioned all American citizens traveling in Europe to be vigilant in the wake of new information about potential terrorist acts. New intelligence obtained by several European countries indicated that there is an imminent threat, although it is impossible to say when and where.
St. John’s, with its increasingly large study abroad program, has taken the warning to heart and is carefully monitoring the conditions surrounding University students.
After the warning was released, the University’s Office of Global Studies reached out to all students studying abroad to remind them to be aware of what is happening around them, according to a statement on their website.
Mark Eckman, the assistant director of Global Student Services in the Office of Global Studies, spoke to the Torch about the University’s students who are currently studying abroad and how the department and school are dealing with the situation.
According to his office, there are currently 129 students studying abroad, with 122 in one of the three programs centered in Western Europe. The Discover the World program hosts the largest contingent, with 84 students traveling between Rome, Paris and Salamanca.
He explained that there are no immediate plans to suspend the program and that the University is constantly monitoring the situation. Eckman also pointed out that since the State Department’s warning is vague and limited, making it difficult to pinpoint trouble spots that may require more concentration.
“It’s the opposite of specific,” Eckman said. “In that generality lies the biggest challenge. It’s difficult for us to formulate a concrete response.”
In an announcement on their website, the State Department cautioned Americans to be extra aware and take more precautions than usual while traveling in Europe.
Reports indicated that the plans being discussed by al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups resembled those of the Mumbai attacks that occurred in 2008. Over three days, a group of terrorists attacked two hotels, a subway station and a Jewish cultural center, leaving over 150 people dead.
The State Department’s warning emphasized that terrorists have been known to attack public transportation in particular, ranging from subways to aviation, which Eckman also emphasized.
He stated that his department was in communication with students, “advising [them] to consider their destinations” when traveling between countries.
Eckman also made it clear that the University has no plans to discontinue any of the abroad programs, so long as the situation stays as it is.
“Based on the information available to us right now, there is no plan in place to currently suspend the programs,” he said. “It really depends on the kind of emergency that happens.”
Eckman also addressed what would happen in the event of an emergency and if students needed to be evacuated.
“If it gets to the point where students do need to be evacuated, we do have that in place,” he said.
The University has partnerships with several offsite firms that provide insurance and services for students studying abroad. One of these, HTH Worldwide, offers students medical insurance and has resources available to the University to properly evacuate the campuses.
However, Eckman also pointed out that depending on the type of emergency, it may be safer and wiser to keep students on the University campuses abroad, since they are guaranteed safety there.
Despite the warning, Eckman said that the programs have not been affected for the spring semester. The DTW and Paris semester programs are full, with the Rome semester not far behind.
Eckman admits that the department is “still continuing to receive questions from parents and students,” but he does not think that students should allow the warning to deter them from signing up.
“I think that students always need to keep in mind their comfort level in going abroad, with or without a security alert,” he said.
Students at the University have not seemed shaken by the warning.
Kristen Sievert, a senior, studied abroad this summer on the Rome campus. She said that she felt comfortable during her time in Europe, particularly as part of the University.
“I felt really safe,” she said. “We were on the Rome campus, everyone was so friendly. I didn’t feel threatened at all. Everyone [in the area] knew we were from St. John’s.”
Sievert said that she had spent some time in Germany previously, where she found the atmosphere to be slightly different. She felt that there, people were not as receptive to the American presence.
Jessica Gill, a senior, spent some time abroad this summer as well, although not in connection with the University. She vacationed in Paris and London and found the atmosphere to be similar to what Sievert experienced.
“When we went over the summer, I felt fine,” Gill said. “I didn’t feel in danger.”
For more information on travel warnings, visit the State Department’s website: http://travel.state.gov.