Every Monday night in Leipzig, Germany, a group called LEGIDA stages protests in the heart of the city. The group is a local branch of the bigger organization PEGIDA, which loosely translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, and they demonstrate against allowing Muslim refugees into the country. Because of the nature of the protests, things can get very violent very quickly – Leipzig even brings in about 4,000 police to help handle the situation – which is why ACU professors with the study abroad groups warn students not to go.
But Sawyer Teague, junior information systems major from Double Oak, unintentionally got caught up in one of the protests while studying abroad in Leipzig during the 2015 spring semester.
“I was researching the old city hall in the city center for a presentation in Global Studies,” Teague said. “I had no idea that there was going to be a protest that day. Everything was fine when I first got there, but was pretty chaotic when I left. I walked outside to about 10 police vans speeding through the square with their sirens blaring and a helicopter hovering overhead.”
He also said the tramlines had been shut down and he ended up having to walk 30 minutes to make it back to the apartments, but he never felt unsafe. He was mostly just confused as to what was going on, but the government did a good job controlling the situation, he said. Lillian Thorman, junior elementary education major from Rockwall, also attended one of the protests later that same semester, but said she never felt unsafe either.
With the Paris attacks in November of last year, the shooting in California a few months ago, the Brussels attack just last week and the Pakistan attacks on Easter, the world might look like a scary place. Add the violence related to the border controversy that plagues Europe and the refugee policies that divide democrats and republicans in America, and it might make more sense to just stay at home.
But even so, since the study abroad program started in 1999, about 3,000 students have spent time abroad across the three locations offered: Montevideo, Uruguay; Leipzig, Germany and Oxford, England. The violence and potential threats haven’t swayed students or the study abroad office, because the appeal of spending time abroad – away from family, friends and everything relatively safe – is still strong enough to lure 45 students to Oxford and Leipzig this semester. No students are currently in Montevideo because the South American program is being reconstructed.
Students, and usually their parents, always have worries about shipping off to a foreign country. There hasn’t been a significant uptick of concerns in recent years, according to Stephen Shewmaker, director for the Center of International Education, even though there has been an increase in terrorism related events””particularly after the rise of ISIS. But Shewmaker said things like that shouldn’t stop us from traveling and gaining a richer, more complex perspective of our world.
“Things that frighten us don’t happen as often as we might think they do, based on media consumption,” Shewmaker said. “I think people know that life is risky and you don’t want to take silly risks, but if we’re going to see the world and explore and travel and get a new perspective on people and places, we have to take into account that there may be some risk involved.”
The Study Abroad office always teaches students how to be safe before sending them abroad, but Shewmaker said they talk about a few things more now than they have in the past.
“We stress situational awareness in big groups of people, whether it’s in an ACU group, at a soccer game, a concert or in a big public space,” Shewmaker said. “We’re reinforcing to students that we need them to give us a good idea of where they are, not necessarily moment to moment, but as they do personal travel.”
Before students can leave Oxford or Leipzig for personal travel, they must tell their professor or sign out and leave the contact information of the place they’ll be staying, whether it’s a hotel, hostel or even an Airbnb site. It might be a chore to remember before stepping out the door, but it’s also a valuable safety pre-caution.
Shewmaker also said contact information for faculty and staff is always readily available so students can get help as quickly as possible, if they need it.
Anastasia Luck, who’s spending the 2016 spring semester in Oxford, said ACU and the SA office prepared her and the rest of their group for safe travel while abroad and she’s not worried about traveling to most places, despite an increased threat.
“No matter where you’re going it’s just a matter of being smart, blending in and staying with others to avoid anything happening to you or your belongings,” said Luck, sophomore marketing major from Kerrville. “Michael Gray and Steven Shewmaker informed us of these things pretty well prior to leaving Abilene to ensure we act as safely as possible during our time in Europe.”
Luck said she wasn’t worried about attacks like the one in Paris and she wouldn’t let things like that stop her from studying abroad, anyway.
In general, people in Europe are very accepting but the smaller groups who aren’t as accepting end up making the news, Teague said. This leads to skewed perceptions of certain areas and can fuel the fear of people who otherwise want to travel or study abroad.
Though the program hasn’t been impacted by terrorism threats, ACU is still taking precautions to ensure student safety and to secure the longevity of the program. Shewmaker said while there are real reasons to be wary of certain cities at certain times, there’s also a heightened sense of fear that isn’t justified by the actual reality of those places.
“I think people understand that,” he said. “And we don’t want, to some degree, to have those who would seek to stoke fear keep us from traveling to places and seeing new things and meeting new people.”