Safety, awareness important to remember for students traveling abroad

Advisers share advice on how to stay safe in foreign countries

Graduate student Megan Yousef never imagined she would have to protect her purse from an elderly woman on the subway while she studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

Yousef said an “innocent-looking old lady” holding friendly conversation tried to steal from someone’s purse, but she was caught.

More than 100 college students plan to travel internationally through Kent State’s study abroad programs in the fall. Judith Carroll, study abroad program director, said students need to be cautious and use good judgment to ensure their safety while studying internationally.

Two French students studying abroad in England did not know what was in store for them after beginning a three-month research project at Imperial College London. An attacker entered their living quarters and murdered the students by stabbing them more than 200 times in the head, neck and torso June 29, according to The Guardian newspaper.

Customs and cultures

Some behaviors Americans engage in every day could be considered insulting in countries around the world. Here are some interesting facts about culture and customs in locations around the planet:

&bull Young people in Guyana address adults or elders as “aunties” and “uncles.”

&bull When waving hello or goodbye in most European countries, the correct way to wave is to face the palm out with hand and arm stationary and fingers wagging up and down. The common American wave means “no” in Europe, and it is considered an insult in Greece.

&bull Talking with hands in pockets is considered rude in Belgium.

&bull Unless it is a special occasion, couples in Austria split the bill evenly on dates.

&bull Sticking out your tongue is

considered a greeting in Tibet.

&bull Touching the top of someone’s head is an insult in Indonesia.

&bull It is illegal to leave Thailand with an image of Buddha.

&bull France has more pets than children.

Source: World Citizens Guide

Max Grubb, assistant professor of journalism, said students who are studying in an unfamiliar environment, culture and society should be aware of the cultural cues surrounding them because they may signal if something is wrong. Students who are not familiar with cultural cues or geography may run into issues, Grubb said.

“You have to be more diligent when you go across seas,” said Grubb, who has traveled with students to England and France for two-week media studies trips for the past eight years.

Grubb recommends students traveling abroad read the Lonely Planet’s travel guides, a series of books that help travelers understand the environment and culture of the society they are traveling to.

The U.S. Department of State is also a good resource that lists travel warnings, Carroll said.

Although emergency situations do occur, not all safety situations overseas are life-threatening. Pickpocketing is one of the biggest safety issues for students studying abroad in European countries.

Grubb said one of the more serious safety issues happened a few years ago when a student had her passport stolen in Paris. The student contacted the U.S. Embassy, but it was closed for Memorial Day weekend. The group flew back to the states, but she had to stay in Paris for a few extra days until she received her new passport.

Yousef said a few female students were waiting for a taxi in Barcelona when a man approached them and said he liked their shoes.

“Next thing you know, they were missing their purses,” Yousef said.

Grubb said a large amount of overseas thefts could be avoided if students were more cautious.

“Oftentimes, a lot of this is the result of carelessness,” Grubb said. “You have to be concerned just like you would be anywhere in the U.S.”

Carroll said big U.S. cities are more dangerous than many of the cities in the world. Students need to be alert and aware of their surroundings at all times, she said.

“When a student travels to Europe, they are relatively safe,” Carroll said. “It becomes the student’s responsibility for his or her own safety.”

Students often have freedom to explore the area while on study abroad trips, but Grubb said he encourages students to travel in groups and avoid staying out late.

“It’s fun to go out and drink in a foreign place, but the last thing you want to do is travel alone while being drunk and get lost,” said Rebecca Alexander, a senior political science major who studied in Brazil. “Use the buddy system.”

Many international citizens can spot Americans in a crowd because of their appearance and demeanor, Carroll said. She added the best rule for study abroad students is to “walk softly and talk softly,” which isn’t easy for American students.

Grubb said he tries to blend in by honoring the customs and culture of the countries he visits.

“I always try to know the customs and be conscious of protocol,” Grubb said.

Americans are some of the most unpopular international travelers and have the tendency to be perceived as “know-it-all-Americans,” Grubb said. Therefore, it is important for travelers to take their best customs when traveling abroad and leave the worst at home.

Despite safety concerns, Grubb said he still highly recommends studying abroad. A student must have a good attitude about traveling and be willing to practice common sense, he said.

“You’ll be so enriched,” Grubb said. “You just have to be safety-conscious when you’re in an unknown place.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Sharmira Fowler at [email protected].

Contact international affairs reporter Rebecca Odell at [email protected].