Higher education

International crises heighten study-abroad awareness

From terror attacks to health risks to natural disasters, directors constantly on alert

Trevor Nelson is the study abroad director for Iowa State University. He talked on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, about the growth in study abroad interest and the need to be diligent about safety advisories. (Iowa State University)
Trevor Nelson is the study abroad director for Iowa State University. He talked on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, about the growth in study abroad interest and the need to be diligent about safety advisories. (Iowa State University)
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Today, it’s Belgium. Before, it was France.

There also is Brazil, where the Zika virus is rampant. And tomorrow could bring an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane somewhere else.

The drumbeat of terror attacks, health risks and natural disaster crises around the world has directors of growing university study-abroad programs continually monitoring international security updates and advisories. Program heads on Iowa’s campuses were paying attention Tuesday, for example, when news broke of more terror attacks — this time in Brussels.

None of Iowa’s three public universities have students studying abroad in Belgium right now, but Iowa State University — for one — has an exchange program planned there in spring 2017. ISU’s study abroad director, Trevor Nelson, said he doesn’t foresee Tuesday’s attacks derailing that program.

“But we have to monitor the situation and make the best determination about whether you are putting students in harm’s way,” he said. “At this point, I don’t believe we are in a position to put that program on hold.”

Nelson said study abroad programs these days have to be “more diligent in terms of monitoring what is happening in other parts of the world.” But, he said, that’s not necessarily indicative of a more dangerous international study environment.

Rather, he credited it — among other things — to a rise in students taking advantage of the opportunity.

“It’s partly a facet of the number of students who are now studying abroad,” he said. “And they are going to every continent.”

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When Nelson started as the ISU study abroad director 25 years ago, about 200 students were involved. In the 2015 budget year, ISU sent 1,633 students oversees through a variety of study programs to every continent including Antarctica.

“And the type of students who are studying abroad has changed as well,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, those who went on semesterlong programs tended to be self-starters and more independent and resilient than today.”

Today’s international learners have different backgrounds and interests. That has the department fielding more questions about safety from parents.

Advances in travel technology have created the perception of a smaller world — and so have the constant news cycle and sharing on social media.

“The issues that grab the attention of the media tend to be more explosive,” he said. “And they grab the attention of parents and students perhaps more than they did 25 years ago.”

But according to a study published this month by the Forum on Education Abroad, students who choose to study internationally are not less safe than those who stay on U.S. campuses.

The mortality rate for college students on U.S. campuses is 29.4 per 100,000, compared with a rate of 13.5 for students abroad, according to the research, which analyzed insurance claims from two major providers that in 2014 insured 146,898 students in 184 countries.

“The data reported here support the conclusion that study abroad is not more risky, in terms of the likelihood of death, than university study in the U.S.,” according to the study. “Still, it remains the responsibility of the field of education abroad and its professionals to maintain and continuously strive to improve student health and safety abroad.”

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Although none of Iowa’s public universities have students studying abroad in Brussels today, they do have students and professors on campus from that region.

One is Kris De Brabanter, an assistant professor in statistics at ISU. He grew up in a small Belgium community about 25 miles west of Brussels and got his Ph.D. at a university about 18 miles east of the country’s capital city. He landed a job at ISU in 2013, leaving behind his family and friends in Belgium.

Tuesday, De Brabanter got a call from a friend asking if he’d seen the news. There are bombs going off in Brussels, the caller reported. De Brabanter said he was shocked and immediately jumped online.

“I checked in with my parents right away, and they are OK,” he told The Gazette. “They were far away from any of the attacks.”

De Brabanter said he worries that his country, as a whole, will continue to be a target for its anti-terrorism measures. But he said he’s not concerned about his family’s immediate safety.

Guido Tricot, a University of Iowa internal medicine professor and practitioner from Belgium, said his family, too, lives mostly outside Brussels. But Tuesday he reached out to them — his three brothers, two sisters, and mother — to make sure they were safe.

“They cannot believe this is happening,” Tricot said.

Tricot, who started working for the UI Hospitals and Clinics in 2012, said he was planning a visit home soon.

“But I think I will wait a little longer,” he said. “Probably not before the fall will I go back. I will see how things settle down.”

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