Commentary: Stetson President: Study abroad but be vigilant


Study abroad. No other experience has the potential to so swiftly and absolutely change students’ lives and prepare them for success as global citizens. In a global economy, American undergraduates are flocking to Europe and other popular study-abroad destinations in record numbers to immerse themselves in learning about other cultures and other languages.

However, there is a shadow looming over the landscape of higher education. In the aftermath of the devastating string of terrorist strikes in London, Paris and Brussels, will study-abroad programs continue to thrive, or will students and their anxious parents decide the benefits don’t outweigh the risks?

Like many other educational institutions, Stetson University is keeping a close watch on the geopolitical scene and, of course, on student decisions about where — or whether — to study abroad. Since the 2016 election, we are also spending more time in the pre-departure orientation, preparing students for their role as unofficial ambassadors at a time of growing anti-American sentiment.

“Some days it feels like we are walking on eggshells when discussing what it means to be an American abroad in this political climate,” says Paula Hentz, Stetson University’s Director of International Learning. “We talk a lot about how students can either reinforce or break negative perceptions about America, and we absolutely spend time talking about safety precautions.”

No two students will have the same experience, but we take special care to prepare them for perceptions they may encounter as Americans living and studying abroad. Fellow students, host families, even taxi drivers are likely to express strong opinions about a wide variety of developments in the United States. For that reason, we talk with LGBT students about finding safe neighborhoods and spaces in their host culture, and encourage them to consider carefully the ramifications.

We also feel a responsibility to reach out more frequently to parents, allaying concerns and putting the risks in perspective. Statistics help. One recent study found students are actually safer away from their home campus. An analysis of 2014 insurance claims by the Forum on Education Abroad estimated the mortality rate for students on U.S. campuses is actually slightly higher than for those studying overseas. Headlines may stoke terrorist concerns, but according to the U.S. State Department, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans overseas.

By contrast, the risk of dying in a terrorist strike is extremely remote — about four times less likely than dying from a heat wave. Turns out, one of the riskiest things an American student abroad can do is forget to wear a seat belt.

It’s too soon for 2017 data on national enrollments, but the early forecasts look bright. The colleges and providers recently contacted by The Chronicle of Higher Education are predicting no slowdown in enrollments in study-abroad programs. In the short term at least, interest in international education even appears to be “booming,” according to Sharon Witherell at the Institute of International Education.

At Stetson, I’m seeing resilience, not retreat. Parents have shown more interest in security measures, but students haven’t voiced unusual concerns. Overall, students intent on exploring the world are undeterred. The prevailing view: Be vigilant. Accept that terrorism knows no borders, but don’t let fear hold you hostage.

For many Stetson students, safety concerns are just one consideration in an intricate web of decisions. Study abroad is no longer a one-size-fits-all model for those who could afford to spend their junior years learning languages, touring museums and backpacking. By comparison, today’s students have the world at their doorstep. Over the past five years, Stetson’s program offerings have more than quadrupled. Students can choose to study abroad in any major and still take courses toward their graduation requirements. And at a time when Europe may not feel as safe, we offer programs in such far-flung destinations as Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, China, Thailand, Chile, Russia and South Africa.

Presented with all these opportunities, most of our students are limited by cost, not desire.

I was 23 years old and supporting myself in grad school the first time I went abroad, as my family couldn’t afford to send me overseas when I was an undergraduate. Now I see what I missed. That is why I’m passionate about doing everything I can to support Stetson’s goal of making study abroad and the international experience possible for all students, not just the privileged few.

We aren’t there yet. According to the latest Open Doors report released by the IIE, just one out of 10 U.S. undergraduates studies abroad for academic credit, and that’s an all-time high.

As I spend time with our students and witness their enthusiasm for making a difference in the world, I’m reminded of our obligation to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for significant work and lives — in health fields, government service, emerging technologies, the environment, social justice and across the spectrum of global needs. Addressing the world’s complex problems is tough work, especially in these divisive times. It takes guts. And it calls for leaders with multicultural competency and a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the issues.

For all these reasons, I believe, study abroad will continue to thrive despite — or perhaps because of — the risks and the benefits.