Sexual Harassment on Study Abroad
A University of Minnesota student who says she repeatedly endured sexual assault and harassment while studying abroad is publicly criticizing the response of the university’s study abroad office. The controversy once again raises questions about the tricky business of dealing with alleged harassment that occurs abroad, at a time that international study continues to grow.
Rachel Jamison, a fifth-year student at Minnesota, has detailed the assault and harassment she reportedly experienced while studying at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam in a 12-page, single-spaced report that relates terrifying tale after terrifying tale of aggressive advances and assaults on the streets of the country’s largest city.
But it was the effect of the harassment on her academics that led her to finally seek help from home: the man who controlled her ability to register for classes allegedly refused to allow her to register until she agreed to a “date” (meaning in this context, Jamison says, sex); her 30-page handwritten research papers were stolen from a department office by a fellow student who she says demanded sex in exchange for their return; and a man at the office for foreign students, her in-country resource office, made her uncomfortable with his alleged inquiries about her sexual habits.
“What happened is that in January I realized that not only was I not able to register for classes but that I was not going to have any grades since my papers were stolen. At this point,” says Jamison, who returned to Minnesota last week, midway through what was supposed to be a scholarship-supported academic year in Tanzania, “I started to try to get help from the University of Minnesota.” The failure of the Learning Abroad Center to act once she said harassment was occurring was, she says, contrary to the university's sexual harassment policy.
"Their lack of response to me left me in a very dangerous situation. I ended up coming home safely because I was very lucky. The fact that a student can report sexual harassment to them and they do nothing about it, is not only inadequate and inappropriate but it is also dangerous," she says.
University officials declined to comment specifically on Jamison’s situation, other than to release a statement indicating that “[t]he experience that Rachel has had in Tanzania has only just come to the attention of the Learning Abroad Center,” and that the university followed its proper protocol to ensure student safety and security abroad. Generally speaking, explains Martha Johnson, associate director of Minnesota's Learning Abroad Center (which manages the Tanzania exchange program), center employees adhere to the guidelines in the university’s sexual harassment policy.
Typically, Johnson says, a student experiencing harassment abroad would start by notifying the assigned in-country contact, who would in turn notify the university’s Learning Abroad Center. Together, they would develop a plan of action. Steps could include calling local law enforcement officials, the appropriate embassy, the insurance provider and, with student permission, the student’s emergency contact, while simultaneously connecting the student with the University of Minnesota’s Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, a center that specializes in confronting sexual violence.
A student could certainly contact the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center directly, but would generally be encouraged to contact the in-country adviser first, says Johnson: “For us, the first thing is to make sure that the person is safe in a good environment and working with people on site.”
But Jamison charges that proper protocol wasn't followed in her case, at least not in a timely manner. She says her complaints this fall to staff at her assigned in-country contact -- an office for foreign students known as LINKS -- received no response. To the best of her knowledge, she says, they were never forwarded to the University of Minnesota.
When she finally began contacting the university directly January 24, she initially made no mention of the harassment she’d experienced since August because, she writes in her statement, “I had already experienced so much frustration in regards to having my complaints about sexual harassment taken seriously that I honestly did not want to relate me [ sic] situation again if I did not have to.”
After hearing, however, that she would need either to obtain a transcript or partially repay her scholarship in order to graduate, she chose to mention the harassment she was experiencing. At the bottom of two subsequent e-mails, she expresses her concerns about graduating on-time without a Tanzanian transcript – concerns that were keeping her in the country, she says. In correspondence shared by Jamison, she wrote first to her academic adviser (who copied her response to the Learning Abroad Center), and then to the center directly.
“This university [of Dar es Salaam] is quite rife with sexual harassment so that everytime I’ve tried to ask someone [about the transcript], it turns into a man telling me I won’t get a transcript unless I agree to go on a date,” she wrote her adviser January 26, before directly telling her contact in the Learning Abroad Center January 30 that she had “some bad experiences the first semester with sexual harassment.” No further details of the harassment were provided.
Again, according to the correspondence provided by Jamison, she got a response February 1 from Stacey Bolton Tsantir, an associate program director in the Learning Abroad Center, that mentioned the transcript issue briefly and then said, “I am sorry to hear about your issues with sexual harassment and would be happy to talk them through with you if you wish” (Tsantir declined to comment for this article, citing privacy concerns).
The response, says Jamison, was inconsistent, in her view, with a stipulation in the university-wide policy that “[d]epartment heads, deans, provosts, chancellors, vice presidents, and other supervisors and managers must take timely and appropriate action when they know or should know of the existence of sexual harassment. Other persons who suspect sexual harassment should report it to an appropriate person in their unit or to the University equal opportunity officer.”
Robert Aalberts, a professor of legal studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who has written on study abroad and sexual harassment, says institutions face a moral and legal burden to address harassment allegations. “Sexual harassment is hard to define and certainly would be hard to define from a long distance and hard to define from another culture, but still they needed to find out what’s going on with a student who they were responsible for,” says Aalberts. “When somebody gives you notice, it’s just basic law, that it then creates the beginning of a duty to do something about it.”
At the same time, adds Aalberts, it seems that in this case, the Learning Abroad Center’s invitation to talk was at least a "start," a first step in ascertaining the facts. It's also the student’s responsibility, he says, to convey the concerns in clear terms so that university officials halfway across the world can act appropriately. “If you look at modern sexual harassment law, they are putting some onus on the purported victim too, the purported victim has a duty to report it -- they call it mitigation of damages, to try to make it so they don’t continue to be in this situation and be hurt.”
Aalberts believes that colleges have strengthened their policies on sexual harassment abroad since the late '90s, when a suit filed by a student who said she had been raped in Japan while participating in an Earlham College program brought unprecedented attention to a problem that had once been all but ignored. (The suit was ultimately settled.)
Ines DeRomana, a senior policy analyst for the University of California’s Education Abroad Program and chair of the subcommittee on health and safety in study abroad for NAFSA: Association for International Educators, adds that the issue has not come up as a problem on the subcommittee level in recent years. “As Title IX [which prohibits discrimination based on gender] may apply when students are enrolled in education abroad programs, institutions are well aware of this, govern themselves as though Title IX does apply to education abroad, and have implemented and in many instances improved, their harassment policies for education abroad programs,” she wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. A fair amount of information regarding best practices and risk management is also available to educators in the field, she explained.
Yet, as college leaders increasingly encourage study abroad – and in programs focused on cultural immersion rather than those based on international university campuses that Aalberts says are far easier to police -- there’s at least some sentiment that there’s more to be done in preparing students for possible pitfalls. Ann Franke, the president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on risk, says that many institutions still have a long way to go in clarifying the global scope of their sexual harassment policies and communicating to students abroad the best mechanism through which to file a complaint (Interestingly, she says, the complaints typically involve fellow travelers, not locals).
“There’s an increased focus on physical safety and threats of political disruption, terrorism and illness,” in study abroad programs, says Franke. “I think preparation for those kinds of risk have increased in the last five years. I myself haven’t seen much movement in the discrimination and harassment orientation or planning, but there is a little.”