Reacting and Not Overreacting to Europe Travel Alert

State Department says it does not want colleges to call off study abroad programs. Many institutions urge students to be vigilant.
October 4, 2010

While the U.S. State Department on Sunday issued a travel alert, warning Americans about the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe, a senior State Department official explicitly said in a press briefing that the government does not want colleges to call off study abroad programs.

The travel alert urges U.S. citizens to take "every precaution" to protect themselves, and warns of the potential for attacks on public transportation or tourist sites, but does not advise against travel to Europe in general. Many colleges have policies that they call off programs in countries where the State Department has issued a specific travel warning, which is a much higher level of caution than the alert issued Sunday. But Sunday's measure was somewhat unusual for the study abroad world in that it involved Europe, home to the most popular study abroad destinations and a region not generally subject to travel warnings of the sort that are more common in other parts of the world.

The travel alert does not mention students specifically, but at a briefing Sunday, Patrick F. Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, was asked about study abroad and said that colleges should not call off programs.

"We’re not – we're not recommending, that American citizens of any kind – business, tourism, study abroad – we are not – we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not," said Kennedy.

Early signs suggest that colleges are following that advice -- sending out alerts to students and program directors, but not bringing anyone home. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, in Minnesota, sent a notice Sunday to country program directors in Europe and will follow up with a message to all students in Europe today. The message will urge caution, and will particularly note the need to stay in contact with program directors as fall break leads many to travel independently.

The Saint Benedict/Saint John's letter to program directors abroad also noted the challenges of warning students at this time in the semester, when many are feeling relatively comfortable in their new environments.

"Though today’s travel alert draws our attentions to the potential threats of terrorist attacks, it is also an important opportunity to touch base with the students regarding their general attention to safety and their daily comportment during study abroad," said the letter, from Peggy Retka, education abroad advisor for the colleges. "At this point in the program, students are feeling much more comfortable with their surroundings and are hopefully starting to blend into the host culture. This should not happen however at the expense of common sense and good personal awareness. We know that a far greater threat to students is drinking too much or putting themselves in situations where they do not fully understand the implications."

The Associated Press reported that IES Abroad, a nonprofit provider of study abroad programs, on Sunday sent e-mail messages about the alert to 1,500 college students in its European study abroad programs, and to their parents -- and that several hours after sending the messages no one had asked to come home.

Bill Hoye, executive vice president of IES, told the wire service: "We say, 'Be alert, cautious and aware of your surroundings.' It means, 'Don't be totally plugged into your iPod.'"


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