Studying abroad is an exciting way to discover a culture, immerse yourself in a language and learn about the history of a foreign country.
However, students abroad may sometimes find themselves in the midst of history-changing events as they unfold, as many foreign students living in Egypt in 2010-11 discovered and, more recently, those in Paris and Brussels.
Studying abroad during times of political and social turmoil can be dangerous. In addition to following basic study abroad safety rules, there are some extra steps to take if you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation abroad.
1. Keep connected with your university.
If you’re studying abroad, there is sure to be some sort of study-abroad office or go-to person (like a professor or administrator) available to foreign students at your university. If possible, check in here to get instructions and advice as to how to proceed.
Make sure they have all your contact information; if they decide that students should leave, they will need to get in touch with you. They can also communicate with your university back home, which is likely to be the first place your loved ones will turn to in order to get information about your welfare should you be unable to contact them directly.
2. Reassure loved ones at home.
Friends and family at home are undoubtedly going to be following the news and worrying about you, so definitely try to find a way to let them know you’re okay. When possible, social networking sites are great ways to update loved ones efficiently, and since internet connections or power grids might be shaky, it’s good to update people en masse.
A friend of mine who was studying in Cairo during the winter of 2011 had a Facebook wall flooded with concerned inquiries, but she was unable to respond to any of them because she had no internet connection! Luckily, she managed to call her parents on a cell phone and her father then posted on her Facebook wall, informing all those who asked that she was safe and sound. (See, being Facebook friends with your parents has some benefits!)
3. Stay away from the ruckus.
If there are people protesting in the streets, it may be tempting to get in on the action and join them (especially if you’re a budding journalism student!). Do yourself and your loved ones a favor and lie low. Even a peaceful protest can turn violent in the blink of an eye, and you don’t want to get caught in the middle of a rowdy crowd.
Avoid potentially dangerous situations, don’t go out alone and observe curfews. If you are living in a hot-spot area try to get to a quieter neighborhood. For instance, if you have a friend living in a quieter suburban area or on-campus (assuming campus is calm!), it would be better to stay with them than in the thick of things.
4. Band together.
Make it a priority to stick together with fellow students and, again, stay connected with your university’s foreign students office. Not only does this give you some safety in numbers, it will also make it easier to stay in touch (i.e. multiple people equals multiple cell phones) and to organize any necessary movement.
5. Be prepared to leave.
The important thing to remember is that the situation is unpredictable. Keep abreast of new information: If you have the internet, consult news sites and media Twitter feeds, and use email to maintain contact. If you have a cell phone, make sure both your local contacts (such as your host family and friends) and those at home have your number.
Although the situation in your study abroad country may be driven by internal conflicts leading you to feel safe as a foreigner, it’s important to remember that any situation like that is unpredictable. Just in case, you should always have your travel basics – i.e. passport, visas, money and valuables – on you.
In any situation where a study abroad country becomes dangerous (for whatever reason) you should always be ready to leave in case your school decides on a last-minute evacuation.