After a day of travel and sightseeing in Cordoba, Spain, Sarah Cannon ’06 and Della Sentilles ’06 went to the train station on the afternoon of March 11, looking to head back to their youth hostel in Seville. They were confused when the conductor told them there were no departing trains. Zoe Palitz ’05 and Brian Goldman ’05 found themselves similarly puzzled when their tickets to go see the Alhambra Palace in Granada said 12 p.m., yet they were told specifically to come to the palace at 12:15 p.m.
Eventually, Cannon and Sentilles learned that there were no trains headed back to Seville because of the bombings that — according to reports as of Mar. 19 — had killed approximately 202 people in a train station in Madrid just hours earlier, and Palitz learned that the 15 minute delay at the Palace was due to 15 minutes of silence that began at noon.
Yet these students, along with many other Yale students also in Spain on March 11, all seemed to agree that they did not want to let this tragic act of violence prevent them from seeing and experiencing the country.
According to Karyn Jones, associate director of International Education and Fellowship Programs, 12 Yale students are currently studying in Spain, either on Junior Year of Junior Term Abroad, and at least two students are there on a leave of absence. In addition, many other Yale students were in Spain visiting friends or vacationing.
For those students looking for a fun, laid-back spring break, though, the bombings challenged their expectations.
“As for a relaxing spring break, there was no way,” said Sentilles. “But it’s unbelievable to have been there and to have lived through it.”
Though most students were asleep when the attack occurred, all said they were stunned when they heard the news.
“I was very shocked,” said Palitz. “It felt a lot like it did on 9/11 — a lot of confusion, confusion with no one taking responsibility.”
Samuel Walker ’05 who was in Madrid on the morning of the bombings, heard the news when someone called his friend’s cell phone.
“It was shocking,” he said. “But after 9/11 it was not entirely new.”
Indeed, many students who were in Spain at the time compared the event to Sept. 11, 2001, yet both Cannon and Sentilles agreed that, for them, the recent bombings had more of an impact.
“It was more powerful for me than 9/11,” said Sentilles, “mostly because it was so immediate.”
Cannon added that, for her, it was the first time terrorism wasn’t just a political tragedy.
“It was a very tangible reality,” Cannon said. “This time, terrorism was real; it was personal. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It pervades all levels of consciousness.”
Once students got over the initial shock, however, most chose not to change their vacation plans, but rather to show their support for the Spanish.
Palitz said many of her friends tried to convince her and her boyfriend not to travel to Madrid as they had planned. But she ultimately decided she did not want to let the act of violence change her plans.
“Our world is not always safe,” Palitz said. “But that doesn’t mean you should stay locked up in your room.”
Likewise, Cannon and Sentilles, who eventually were able to find a train, were so disturbed by what had happened that they briefly entertained the notion of cutting their trip short and returning home. They ultimately decided to stay, although they did not return to Madrid.
“We were very confused about what to do,” Cannon said. “We considered going home, and we even had irrational thoughts about leaving Spain and just going to another country which was not allied with America [over the war in Iraq]. But the next morning we decided to stay. You can’t let the fear consume you, and you can’t avoid it [terrorism] because it makes no sense.”
Students on study abroad were also willing to remain in Spain rather than return home, according to Jones. As of yet, no Yale students decided to end their study abroad programs early.
Not only did students decide to continue with their trips as planned, but most said that they made an effort to truly internalize what was going on and to support the Spanish. Taylor Chapman ’05, who is studying in Madrid for the semester, went to the large demonstration in Madrid. Palitz, Cannon and Sentilles attended demonstrations as well.
Nonetheless, students recognized the danger and gravity of the situation, and many of their parents were quite concerned. Walker said that his parents and all of his friends’ parents immediately called the cell phone of the one student, Michael Maya ’05 who was studying in Spain for the semester. Cannon and Sentilles also spoke to their parents as soon as they found out what had happened.
Betsy Cannon, Sarah’s mother, said she was concerned about her daughter but had confidence that Sarah would exercise good judgment.
“I think logistically it worked out sort of well for me,” Betsy Cannon said. “I was East with Sarah’s sister looking at colleges, and we were driving from Poughkeepsie to Providence when it happened, so I was basically in the dark. And from the time when I heard about it until the time we heard from her was only a couple of hours. Had I not heard from her, I would have been terrified.”
Sarah Cannon and her mother appreciated the irony in that the violence occurred in Spain, and yet Spain was one of the few places to which Sarah has traveled without first being subject to a lengthy debate with her parents. Sarah has traveled to Cuba and to Peru and is considering travel to Senegal and South Africa, places Betsy Cannon said might be considered less “advanced” and more “dangerous.”
“Sarah has been beating me to a pulp for a long time,” Betsy Cannon said, “So when she said she wanted to go to Madrid, I didn’t think it was a problem at all.”
The Cannons are not the only family who debate the safety of student travel, and Betsy Cannon is not the only parent who believes that travel to Europe is somehow safer than travel to South America or Africa. Yet this recent tragedy seems to others to be evidence that terrorism is unpredictable and can strike anywhere.
Marjorie Stein, mother of Lauren Fine ’06, said that she and her husband would prefer Lauren to study abroad in Spain next year as opposed to Argentina. But she pointed out that her reasons are less about safety and are rather more intellectually oriented.
“The biggest reason for both my husband and I is that we would prefer a more sophisticated, more educated place, more on a par with where she is now at school. Safety is not as much of an issue, although we did exercise some discretion over where we wanted her to travel this summer. But what is going to happen, is going to happen anywhere — I’m a fatalist I guess.”
Most students who were in Spain on March 11 agree with Stein — none seems to regret his decision to stay or to continue living their lives as usual. On the other hand, most students agreed that, at least in some way, being in Spain at the time was a fascinating and incredible, though horrifying, experience.
“I am so glad I was there,” Cannon said. “I talked to people on the street, to the taxi drivers, and to the newspaper venders. The experience was so incredible, because I was forced to care and get involved and learn about the politics. It was awful, but I gained more from that vacation than I ever could have imagined. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything ever.”