In Study Abroad, the Aftershocks

At conference of international educators, panelists discuss the state of international education in Japan and Mexico.

June 2, 2011

VANCOUVER, B.C. – International student and scholar exchange has suffered a number of shocks over the past year, as political turmoil and natural disaster in such strategically significant study abroad destinations as Egypt and Japan led to emergency evacuations of students. At the same time, due to increases in drug violence, particularly in the northern border region, study abroad to Mexico has also decreased.

Here at the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, two sessions on Wednesday focused on the current safety and security situations in Japan and Mexico, respectively, and the effects on international student enrollments and exchange.


At a standing-room-only session Wednesday morning, representatives from Japanese and American universities discussed the aftermath of the March 11 tsunami and the ensuing radiation crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Junsaku Mizuhata, deputy director of international student exchange at Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, provided statistics showing that 96 percent of all international students were able to stay near their campuses despite the disaster in the country’s northeast: of 33,867 students at 135 national, public and private universities, an estimated 32,524, or 96 percent, were able to remain within commuting distance of their institutions.

Tomoyuki Nogami, senior managing director of the Japan Association of National Universities, added that of the four national universities that experienced a delay in their academic schedule – Fukushima, Iwate, and Tohoku Universities, and the Miyagi University of Education -- all four began their spring semester classes in May. The other 82 national universities proceeded with their spring semesters as normally scheduled.

Kazuko Suematsu, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Economics and Management at Tohoku University, painted a picture of the effect of the earthquake and tsunami on Tohoku, which is located about 60 miles from Fukushima and was among the institutions that delayed the start of the spring semester until May. Two Tohoku students, and one prospective student, died in the disaster. Fourteen students were injured, including one international student. Of 588 total buildings, 28 are considered dangerous and are thus unusable. Total student enrollment dropped by 10 percent this spring, primarily due to the withdrawal of many international students.

Suematsu said that 34 degree-seeking international students withdrew, as did about half of all international students who were on campus in the fall. While the university will no doubt take a long time to recover, “We’d like to turn these challenges we are facing into opportunities,” Suematsu said -- by, for example, focusing on disaster-related research: Tohoku is establishing the Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research.

Suematsu concluded her presentation by quoting an anonymous exchange student from France, who resisted the call to go home:

There were two big issues I had to deal with: my parents and university. My parents were worried about radioactivity. I was in Sendai the whole time, and so I knew it wasn’t that bad. However, the media sometimes reports things differently outside Japan.

So, I showed my parents the amount of radiation in the air and water measured daily by a researcher at Tohoku University, and they finally decided to respect my decision.

My school canceled all the exchange programs in Japan, and I lost student status as well as the scholarship as a result. Tohoku University, however, tried to support by giving me a visiting student status. Soon, my university decided to stop the cancellation, and then Tohoku University helped me get the scholarship back.

I am glad that I didn’t give up.

Many American students in Japan similarly resisted university and parental attempts to bring them home. Rounding up the presentations, Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education and professor of foreign language education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, painted a picture of a U.S. university responding to the crisis in Japan in real time. Initially, he said, the university moved to evacuate a Buffalo faculty member who was based at Tohoku University, but did not plan to evacuate students who were living farther from the earthquake, in Kanazawa, Kobe, and Tokyo -- until, that is, the concerns about radiation at Fukushima began to emerge.

University officials were left sifting through conflicting information about levels of radioactivity, and gradually, Dunnett said, they became less confident in the credibility of statements coming from the Japanese authorities. “Of course hindsight is 20-20 vision, so it’s easy to look back and say it should have been like this, it should have been like that, but I will just relay how we struggled with the situation,” Dunnett said. “The parents of course became extremely alarmed. Nothing scares people so much as radioactivity.”

“We could no longer reassure them [the parents] as we did at the beginning. Were these reactors melting down? Well, if you listened to official statements, they weren’t. If you listened to reporters and foreign experts, they were….”

There was a lack of certainty about the appropriate size of the exclusion zone surrounding the plant. The U.S. State Department issued an alert urging citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Japan. Buffalo’s own seismic experts warned privately of the danger. In short, the university didn’t want to evacuate students, Dunnett said, “but events moved so quickly, information was so scarce,” and they couldn’t reassure parents that students were 100 percent safe. Thus, “Reluctantly we gave the order. We would purchase air tickets; we would bring people home. But we were surprised: some of the students refused. This had never happened to us before.

“The students had such a deep affection for Japan and for their studies and universities. Having once been a young Fulbright Scholar in Japan myself, I could understand their feelings, but the parents were not in harmony with their point of view. So the parents were calling me and saying, ‘You must order my son or daughter to come home.’ ”

The university ultimately bought plane tickets for those students who were willing to return home but decided against adopting punitive measures for students who stayed (such measures could include withdrawing scholarship support or denying academic credit, for example). In the short term, Dunnett said, study abroad to Japan will likely decrease: he saw a sharp decline in interest for summer programs. “But long term, I think people will go back.”


Mexico has suffered from significant reductions in the numbers of international students as a direct result of fears about drug violence. The U.S. Department of State maintains a travel warning about Mexico, and many institutions have policies either prohibiting student travel to countries on the travel warning list, or requiring students who wish to travel to those countries to petition for special permission.

At an afternoon session, Thomas Buntru, director of international programs at the University of Monterrey and president of the Mexican Association for International Education (AMPEI), presented data showing that 90 percent of AMPEI members reported a decrease in international students this spring, compared to 62 percent in fall 2010. In addition, 30 percent reported a decrease in foreign scholars and the cancellation of international academic events. At Buntru’s own university, international enrollments decreased by 40 percent this spring and are projected to be down by about 60 percent this fall compared to fall 2010. Buntru stressed, however, that despite the fears, “There is not a single report of an international student having been harmed by any drug-related violence in Mexico.”

Buntru’s message, in short, was not to paint Mexico with a broad brush. “As representatives of Mexican universities, we would ask our partners to avoid sensationalist descriptions and generalizations and ask us, your Mexican partners, about local conditions. We are confident that students can still have a safe and valuable study abroad experience at our universities.”

The NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference has attracted nearly 9,000 international educators from 100 countries to British Columbia. The conference continues through Friday.


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