Winter Study trip to Republic of Georgia faces scrutiny from parents

The dangers of banditry, kidnapping and terrorism in the Rep. of Georgia, a former Soviet state located in central Asia, may prevent future groups of students from enjoying a unique experience traveling abroad over Winter Study.

This year’s Winter Study program in Georgia has come under close scrutiny from a number of parents whose children were signed up for the trip, only to be withdrawn once they talked to their parents.

A mountainous landlocked nation nestled within the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia became an independent nation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The country shares borders with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, and Russian troops remain stationed at several locations there today. Compared with American standards, living conditions are poor, but the country is striving to develop its social, political and economic assets.

Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian, identifies closely with the Georgia program. She fell in love with the country after visiting for only a brief period of time.

“I wanted to find a way to share that culture with Americans,” she said. “That’s why I set up the exchange.”

According to Goldstein, the program was actually the first school-to-school exchange between an American undergraduate institution and a university in the former Soviet Union. Initially, it also allowed Georgian students to come to the U.S., but government support for the visits failed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

For American students, especially those studying the Russian language, the nature of the program also changed because Russian is no longer a working language in Georgia. As such, exchange students today participate in a variety of internships, from serving in a hospital to helping with an English language newspaper to working alongside a neurologist in brain surgery.

But this year, the administration is not as concerned with these changes as it is with the potentially dangerous atmosphere.

Georgian travel websites post numerous warnings about criminal activities and violence. For example, 1Up Travel, an agency often used by Americans, reported news of “continued fighting and terrorist activity in Abkhazia, including attacks and kidnappings of international observers,” in its on-line section on Georgian safety and security.

The section on crime warns that “while petty thefts and pick-pocketing were previously the most common crimes, recently foreigners in Georgia have also been victimized by muggings, home break-ins and other violent crimes.”

Last year, safety concerns for Americans traveling abroad stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused the administration to cancel the trip. Today, fears are still running high over rumors about Georgia harboring Chechens and members of al-Qaida.

Goldstein says that students need to be cautious, but she disagrees with last year’s decision to cancel the trip.

“I think in the American perception it’s not a safe place,” she said. “But for anyone who is familiar with the country and who knows [the capital of] Tbilisi, it would be like saying that no one should come to the U.S. because New York has had a terrorist attack.”

Among others that share her views are Jen Doleac ’03 and Sarah Reynolds ’02, who had previously participated in the program.

“Everyone’s host families warned them not to walk alone anywhere — especially at night,” Doleac said. “We all thought they were being overprotective until we spoke to officials at the American embassy one day. They told us we were instant targets because we were so obviously American.

“Nothing happened to any of the people on the trip,” she said. “I think that, as in any big city, as long as people are aware and use common sense they’ll be okay.”

“From what I saw, those sort of incidents are more explained by the social problems over there than by any particular international issues,” Reynolds said. “It’s a country that’s been through a lot in the last thirteen years and there’s a certain amount of desperation and frustration for some of the people, not much unlike what you can find in impoverished parts of U.S. cities. Georgians have learned to live with these facts, and the general policy as I heard people say it was “Don’t tempt the desperate.”

Reynolds’s background in Russian language was helpful, as she lived by herself with a Georgian family.

“Georgians take great pride in their hospitality, and just about everywhere we went we were greeted warmly and well-provided for,” she said. “[It was] to an extent almost uncomfortable for Americans unused to such a welcome by complete strangers.”

According to Goldstein, “It’s like having a country full of grandmothers.”

She also referred to the community that looks after visiting students: “[They] know and love Williams.”

As of now, this year’s trip to Georgia will still take place, but those plans may be thwarted should American military forces invade Iraq.

“I think ultimately individual students need to make the decision whether or not to go,” Doleac said. “I understand the College’s need to protect itself and the community from unnecessary risks, but it should also offer as many opportunities for students to broaden their horizons as possible.”

“The whole point of travel programs for Winter Study is to get us out of the “Purple Bubble” to learn about other places and people,” Reynolds said. “We can’t do that without taking some risks, and we won’t really learn about other people either until we understand some of the dangers, fears, and challenges that they face on a daily basis.”