Study abroad still an attractive option despite SARS. war threats

Despite concerns about the safety of studying in a foreign country in the wake of the Iraqi conflict, many rising juniors are continuing to pursue their plans to study abroad next year. The recent outbreak of SARS in Asia, however, has forced some students to postpone or even cancel their plans to study abroad in affected countries, such as China, with little hope that the outbreak of the virus will soon be controlled.

Over the past decade, study abroad has increasingly become a standard part of a college student’s curriculum. According to the Institute of International Education, “more than 154,000 students received college credit for study abroad in the school year that ended in 2001, twice as many as a decade earlier.”

However, with the recent war in Iraq, study abroad, during the next academic year has become a more worrisome proposition. Many parents, filled with doubts about the safety of study abroad, have raised concerns about their children’s plans to do so.

Regardless of these concerns about safety, the total number of College juniors planning to study abroad next year is consistent with the number of juniors who have chosen to study abroad in recent years.

According to Laura McKeon, assistant dean and coordinator of International Education Programs, “The whole number expected to study abroad next year is a bit down from last year, which was an exceptionally high number, but is quite close to the total abroad during the two years before that.”

Rather than choosing to cancel their plans to study abroad altogether, it seems as if rising juniors are instead postponing their plans to spring semester with hopes that by that time the tense international climate will improve. According to McKeon, “The number of students planning to study abroad in the fall, as of this date, is down considerably from last year. The number planning to study abroad in the spring is up.”

McKeon added that there was a surprising increase in the number of students choosing to study abroad for a full year.

Furthermore, despite the war with Iraq, students are continuing to pursue the same types of programs as students in the past with a few exceptions. For example, McKeon said that students have chosen not to study abroad in Israel, but some students are still interested in the rest of the Middle East region. “We have a student in Egypt now and had two there last year,” she said. “I have a couple of prospectives for Egypt next year.”

Moreover, McKeon said that the number of students planning to study abroad in Muslim countries has not declined. She added that students do not seem to be avoiding France, whose anti-war stance placed the country at odds with the United States. Finally, the war with Iraq has not interfered with some students’ exotic travel plans. “Students continue to thrill me with their adventurousness, which has not declined,” said McKeon. “I still have folks interested in Mongolia and Tibet.”

McKeon expressed the need for caution and sensitivity as these students embark on their journeys during times of war. “I think that students have to be much more careful about having a high profile as Americans than ever before,” she said. “They should be quietly looking and learning and talking, not drawing attention to themselves or hanging out in American places all together. However, I would have said the same thing five years ago, too.”

She also emphasized the importance of study abroad in light of the war with Iraq. “I deeply believe that now, more than ever, we need American students to study abroad and learn about the rest of the world,” she said. “I would like to see more students learn about the Middle East and study Arabic.”

Surprisingly, the current outbreak of SARS in Asia is affecting the study abroad plans of rising juniors much more drastically than the war with Iraq. Recently, The New York Times interviewed Geoffrey Gee, director of study abroad at the University of Pennsylvania, for an article on this very same topic entitled “War and Illness Cloud Prospects for Study Abroad.” “SARS is a different kind of experience,” said Gee in the article. “You can deal with political situations by telling people to stay away from dangerous areas. But here there are so many unknowns that everyone’s a little worried.”

In fact, study abroad programs in the Middle East had months to prepare for the war with Iraq. On the contrary, the sudden outbreak of SARS left study abroad programs in east and southeast Asia struggling for a course of action. According to McKeon, the programs in Beijing and Hong Kong which the College uses have terminated their spring programs early due to the illness. Students who were planning to study abroad during the summer and fall in China have postponed their plans to Spring 2004 with no assurances that by this time the outbreak of the virus will be under control. “SARS has had a dramatic and severe effect,” McKeon said. “Much more so than the war in Iraq.”