Back on Track

American colleges with London programs resumed normal activities Friday, while offering security tips to students.
July 11, 2005

On Friday, a day after four bombs exploded in London, many American colleges with students in Britain had accounted for most or all of their students, and were resuming classes.

For many colleges, it was the first major test of emergency plans put in place after 9/11, and there was a sense that the systems worked. Institutions reminded their students to keep their wits about them, sometimes advising them to avoid their American hats and shirts, and most students returned to classes, with many of those in London back on public transportation Friday.

Administrators expected increased concern from parents in the short term, but no effect on the number of American students studying in Britain, which has climbed over 30,000.

Michigan State University, which coordinates all study abroad programs through a central office, had 342 students in London Thursday. One reason for the central office is so that in an emergency there is a base with access to all student information, rather than having information scattered across departments.

Ann Franke, vice president for national issues and chief knowledge officer at United Educators, which provides insurance to colleges, said that, beyond the formidable task of "trying to convince students not to wear Yankees hats," centralizing information is the way to go.

“Especially since 9/11, we decided we have to be centralized,” said Kathleen Fairfax, director of Michigan State’s study abroad office. The office also shares information with the police department in East Lansing. When the bombs exploded Thursday, calls started pouring in to the police from faculty members in London who knew the cops would be manning a round-the-clock hotline that takes collect calls. By early afternoon, all Spartans abroad were accounted for.

“One faculty member said it was difficult when the phones were not working perfectly,” Fairfax said. “Some went to Internet cafes.” Fairfax said it might have taken days to track students down if the attack had occurred on a weekend. “On weekends, they’re adults, they can do what they want,” she said. “They were mostly in class on Thursday.” For the most part, Fairfax said, parents who called in were very calm. Michigan State had 142 more students scheduled to head to London shortly, and only two backed out because of the bombs. In the past, after some short-lived panic, terrorism has not separated American students from their education abroad.

Experts said any effect on student enrollment, if there is one at all, will be brief. Few classes have been cancelled, and only handfuls of students here and there have asked to leave London. “Those are the earmarks that tell you there isn’t going to be a lasting effect,” said Vic Johnson, a spokesman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

After the Madrid bombing last year, enrollment for Syracuse University’s program there leveled off. “I remember parents who said, ‘I’m not doing it,’” said James Buschman, senior associate director of Syracuse’s department of international programs abroad. “That only lasted one semester, and then enrollments increased,” he said. Buschman said he’ll hear “'Is it safe?’ from parents 50 times in the next three months,” but no parents have asked to have their children removed from London.

Syracuse has an elaborate emergency plan in place, including a standing relationship with a bus company that can evacuate students to a safehouse outside London if need be. Syracuse is no stranger to terror. Thirty-five of its students were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed in 1988. “After that, we realized we need a formal response system, that included how to deal with the media,” said Buschman, who helped write safety guidelines for all American students abroad that were adopted by several national organizations. 
On Thursday, he handled media requests so that administrators in direct contact with London could focus on their work. Evacuation was not necessary Thursday, as all 64 students were located quickly. He said gimmicks sometimes encourage students to leave detailed information about their whereabouts. “We have a raffle,” he said. “Maybe the prize is pony riding in Wales, and to be eligible for the drawing, students have to leave their information. It works.”

The Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, sends students to London each year. Jim Brock, dean of Weis, said that most of his students are from rural communities, and face a daunting adjustment even without terrorism. Still, he has received no requests to remove students from the program. “I still consider not locking doors and muggers a bigger risk for our students than terrorism,” Brock said.

Webster University in St. Louis has campuses in nine foreign countries, all equipped with satellite phones. Three of the four explosions Thursday were within a mile of the university’s London campus. Webster had students in Japan during the sarin gas attack in the subway in 1995, students in Thailand during the tsunami, and had to close its campus in Shanghai during the SARS epidemic.

“This is one event on a continuum for us,” said Richard S. Meyers, president, who said health issues like SARS are far more likely to keep students away. After 9/11, Webster began regular contact with embassies and police forces abroad. It also hired security companies to assess campus safety on every front from night lighting, to public displays of American flags and Yankees gear. “You have to be aware enough not to come off as the ugly American trying to take over the world,” Meyers said. He added that neither tsunamis nor terrorism have had any effect on the number of American students going abroad, but he does think that there will be repercussions for students from some other countries.

“Parents in Japan are very involved in the destination of students,” Meyers said. “After 9/11, there was a lot of concern about safety in the U.S. Now that London’s involved, and you can probably extend that to Europe, I think this will have an effect for Japanese students, and maybe Korean and Vietnamese students as well.” He said some of those students might choose Australia or Canada, instead of the United States or Europe. “The students will still go somewhere. Japan is an island, and they know their only survival is to be a global citizen,” Meyers said.

“We can’t guarantee any place is safe, not even our campus here,” said Buschman. “But I think students sometimes realize from events like this that it’s even more important for them to study other cultures.”

Added Meyers: “It’s absolutely needed for your education. Students, have to be aware that we are not loved, and the government is not loved or even respected in a lot of areas.”

Sadly, American colleges have experience at home with terrorism. On 9/11, nine people associated with the Borough of Manhattan Community College were killed. Since then, the college has regrouped, increased enrollment, and taken on new roles -- such as helping the state with communications needs should there be another emergency in lower Manhattan. Pat Willard, director of public relations, said, “You hate to say something good came out of something so horrible, but it’s something we were proud of." Her advice to London programs? “The best way to fight back is to get back to normal life.” And that seems to be what is already happening.

As for the Yanks, according to several students in London for the summer, Yankees hats appear to be one of the most popular items of clothing among resident Londoners -- a “great way to fit in,” rather than stand out, according to one student. 


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