In just a few minutes, the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 drastically changed the lives of many Americans. Not only were thousands of people murdered and not only was an international landmark destroyed, but the nation’s sense of security was threatened; Americans’ views of the world changed. Perhaps, then, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that these events, as well as the ensuing War on Terror, may have dampened student interest in international study abroad programs. Yet officials at Yale and several other top colleges and universities said recent international tensions have had little impact on student interest in foreign programs.
Officials confirm stability in study abroad numbers
Study abroad advisors at Yale, as well as at several other schools, said though the number of students traveling abroad may have decreased slightly in the past year, the change is well within the normal range of fluctuation. Advisors said caution has increased and people are clearly aware of the possible dangers, but they maintain that actual interest and participation have not undergone a noticeable change.
Karen Jones, Associate Director of International Education and Fellowship Programs at Yale, said even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, student interest in study abroad did not seem to change noticeably. She said that since most students tend to travel to Western Europe and Latin America, and fewer venture to the Middle East, many students did not consider their travel to be affected.
Mark Bauer, Assistant Director of International Education and Fellowship Programs at Yale, agreed with Jones that interest in international experiences had not waned much, though he said SARS was a tremendous blow to the LIGHT Fellowship, which sends students to China, Korea, and Taiwan for language training.
“It doesn’t seem like there has been any crisis,” Bauer said. “People are still proposing travel to dangerous places. The number of fellowships varies from year to year. They usually go up when the economy is bad, but not necessarily.”
At Amherst College in Massachusetts, Study Abroad Advisor Bill Hoffa explained that the concept of international education was too ingrained in many students attending college to be torn down by the current political situation.
“[Study abroad] is something students come to college expecting to do,” Hoffa said.
However, Hoffa acknowledged that some sort of concern certainly exists, whether or not it is an actual deterrent.
“Caution is definitely in the air,” he said. “Parents, students and programs all feel it, but it doesn’t necessarily change the desire to study abroad. 9/11 wasn’t anything new. There were terrorists and bombings before. The world didn’t change. American perceptions changed. Students don’t necessarily view the world any differently.”
Yale’s Task Force takes charge
Whether or not the current international situation has affected the number of students studying abroad, some dangers associated with travel cannot be ignored. Last spring Yale initiated a Task Force on international student travel. On April 17, 2003, the Offices of the Provost and the Secretary issued an international travel policy. The University Faculty Advisory Committee on International Education put together a list of countries to which they would restrict travel because travel risks were considered particularly high.
The list is maintained by the Provost-Secretary Task Force on International Student Travel, chaired by Nancy Ruther, Associate Director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. The Task Force works with faculty leaders and monitors State Department Travel Warnings to decide whether certain countries or regions should be added or removed from the list. As of Aug. 25, 2003, the list included Afghanistan, Cote D’Ivoire, Israel, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and several other countries.
The Yale University International Travel Policy states that Yale will not sponsor the travel of Yale College students to the restricted locations.
“In the case of students in Yale College, the University will impose restrictions on travel to countries on the list,” the policy says. “The university will not sponsor undergraduate groups (e.g. sports teams, glee club), or award Yale-funded or Yale-administered undergraduate travel grants and fellowships in these locations. Also, Yale College will not provide formal courses or grant credit for work undertaken there.”
Students weigh in on policy: protective or restrictive?
Such a policy had a direct effect on students who wished to travel to countries that appeared on the restricted list. Modern Hebrew Professor Ayala Dvoretzky said that many of her students had wished to travel to Israel but ended up changing their plans because they could not receive funding or credit for work completed there. Yet Dvoretzky was hesitant to either support or denounce Yale’s policy.
“As an Israeli, I want people to go,” Dvoretzky said. “I think it’s a great experience and a great place. But on the other hand, I recognize the dangers.”
Despite the restrictions, however, several students did travel to Israel individually. Zvika Krieger ’06 spent this past summer in Israel. He said that he was frustrated by Yale’s policy.
“It’s unfortunate that oftentimes the places with the restrictions are the ones it is most vital to go to,” he said. “The places where the most ‘activity’ is are the places where Yalies can learn the most and where experience is most necessary.”
Paige Austin ’06 also had a direct run-in with Yale’s travel policy. Though Austin was supposed to study in Syria this past summer, she ended up changing her plans and studying in Morocco. She had won a fellowship, which Yale’s policy would have prevented her from using in Syria. However, though originally upset by the policy, Austin said she ultimately came to respect the committee’s point of view.
“I was initially resentful,” Austin said. “But I then met with the head of the committee, and she expressed the committee’s commitment to keeping the list up to date and to doing the most they could responsibly do to make sure Yale students could go where they wanted to go.”
Like Austin, Alastair Gillespie ’04 was directly affected by Yale’s travel policy; yet Gillespie was one of several students last year who petitioned and was approved to travel to a country restricted by Yale. Gillespie ended up backpacking for two months over the summer in Iran.
Gillespie said that he did not find Yale’s process unreasonable.
“Going to a foreign place is a step to which you have to give real consideration,” Gillespie said. “The process is fair enough. The university had the right to ask questions.”
Furthermore, Gillespie said he felt his experience showed why the process was a success.
“I was really pleased,” he said. “My appeal was successful, and that’s a success for the policy, because I was able to go given that I made a reasonable case.”
Gillespie said he understood why Yale was concerned about his travels, yet explained that he took the necessary safety measures.
“I took my own precautions,” Gillespie said. “If you know the red lines, and you don’t cross them, you’re fine. Do you stay out late? Do you go to student protests? Do you take pictures of sensitive sites? Do you talk openly about your views on the government? No.”
Parents — the root of the problem, or an easy scapegoat?
According to several Yale study abroad advisors, parents are often the ones who seem to be most concerned about their children’s travel. Many other universities have to deal with this issue as well.
Hoffa said Amherst does not restrict travel to any countries because the college believes the decision should ultimately be made by students and their parents.
“Our responsibility is to make sure that parents understand that a country a student wants to go to is very dangerous,” Hoffa said, “but ultimately the decision is between the parents and the student.”
Professor Dvoretzky said she thinks it is possible that parents are using the university’s policy to strengthen their case.
“Parents are influenced by it,” she said. “If the university doesn’t want a student to travel to a certain country, that strengthens the parents’ case.”
Kreiger, however, did not feel the same way.
“My mother was upset,” Krieger said, “but she acknowledged that I was an adult who could make my own decisions. If only the university would be so trusting.”
‘A better sense of who you are’
The number of students who study abroad from other colleges is significantly larger than that of Yale. While approximately 40 percent of juniors at Amherst and approximately 25 percent of juniors at the University of Pennsylvania study abroad, only 10 percent of Yalies do so. These numbers, however, do not include students who take the semester off to study abroad or who study abroad over the summer. According to Yale’s admissions office, while only ten percent of students may go abroad during the year, “over half” will travel over breaks or during the summer.
Jones said there was a perception among students that they might miss something if they leave Yale, but added that such a perception was actually a misconception.
“This is not something felt by students who actually do go abroad,” she said.
Recently, Jones pointed out that students have even started to broaden their destinations. She said a recent trend was to study in Spanish speaking countries, and that more and more people were looking towards Latin America.
“Students are starting to become a little more adventurous in their study abroad choices,” Jones said.
In general, students and advisors, despite recent tensions in international affairs, said they continue to recognize the value of studying in a foreign country. Bauer said he thought it was important for students to broaden their intellectual and personal horizons.
“I think that as rich as people’s Yale careers can be, Yale and New Haven is a small, bounded world, and part of what university education is about is breaking down those barriers and getting out into the world to break those preconceptions, to see the world differently,” he said. “There’s nothing like leaving home to give you a better sense of who you are, where you come from, and what the possibilities are.”