On a cold July morning in Santiago, the infamous Plaza Italia is packed with students wearing bandanas and scarves over their faces, huddled around handmade banners.
It’s a scene I’ve passed by many times while living in a city where protesting is as normal as breathing — where sometimes the two are mutually exclusive. A palpable charge is in the air because a march is about to happen today, and what that inevitably means is tear gas and police skirmishes around the city.
Caught in the crossfire of such a scene, and maybe you’ll find yourself, as I did this past spring semester in Chile, staring down a military tank.
Most of the time, these Chilean protests are about better public education and lower prices — demands that are echoed halfway around the world at UC Berkeley. But unlike protests back home, these marches of hundreds of thousands quickly escalate to a breaking point.
“It was complete lawlessness in Santiago then,” recalled UC Berkeley senior Julia Villarruel, who studied abroad for three semesters before mine, including at the peak of the movement in 2011. “Things were on fire everywhere. Chaos on the streets … It just felt so dangerous.”
A protest junkie, Villarruel admitted she has been detained by the Chilean police on two occasions and has experienced tear gas numerous times.
“I have a tear gas mask,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve had three of them.”
Each year, hundreds of university students go abroad to politically or socially unstable countries in the midst of riots, revolution and reform.
With tensions especially prominent in Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Turkey, students who choose to pursue a semester overseas often have to consider the added risk of personal danger.
This year, the UC Education Abroad Program had 141 UC Berkeley students in England, the highest number among all program countries. In comparison, considerably fewer participants went to countries in the Middle East or Africa — just three UC Berkeley students went to Egypt, six went to Israel and a mere two went to Senegal, to name a few.
But given the hassle and the risks, the question on some potential applicants’ mind is if it’s even worth going at all? For some students, the answer is yes.
Students in sticky situations
UC Santa Barbara senior Ariel Brotman started her fall semester last year in Jerusalem, a place she had fallen in love with after going on a Birthright trip. Upon arrival, she soon faced the normal challenges of studying abroad and culture shock, such as making friends and navigating the city.
Toward the end of Brotman’s stay, rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
“The alarm went off, and you could hear it throughout the entire city,” she said. “I was at a friend’s house, and there was no bomb shelter nearby so we had to be in the staircase … I had never experienced something like this.”
For eight days in November 2012, Israel was under attack. The conflict, called Operation Pillar of Defense, involved firing more than a hundred rockets into Israeli territory.
“I think we were all pretty shaken up,” Brotman said, noting that two rockets had exploded close to Jerusalem. “No one knew what to think. We waited to hear what the university was going to say.”
When asked whether she was ever scared about her safety, Brotman laughed.
“Definitely,” she said. “I definitely thought I was going to die.”
Even so, Brotman did not opt to go home right away, despite her parents’ insistence that she could. By then, she had developed a deep connection to Israel and its people.
“The fact that this happened — I kind of feel like I went through it with (the Israelis),” she said. “It was kind of like, ‘wow I feel more of a bond with this country.’”
Brotman said her program was good with keeping students and parents in the loop about safety and security, always with her best interest in mind.
“We had known things in Israel were escalating by the time I left (the United States),” she explained. “I figured if something were to happen, (EAP) would send me home.”
Such was the case for participants in the fall 2013 program in Egypt, which was halted in July due to an “escalation in violence.” UCEAP also recently announced in a press release the suspension of the spring 2014 Egypt program at the University in Cairo.
Jean-Xavier Guinard, UCEAP’s associate vice provost and executive director, affirmed in an email that the programs abroad are committed to promoting a safe environment.
“Our around-the-clock risk assessment and crisis and incident response management allow us to monitor and react to world events,” Guinard said. “The protocols we have established include contingency planning and effective response to safety, security or health emergencies, which are all critical to the success of our programs and participants.”
The safety issue
Of course, the question of safety is undoubtedly an important one, but sometimes the risks are not always upfront.
“I didn’t expect it to be that bad,” said UC Merced senior Patrick Breen, who spent fall 2012 and spring 2013 in Ankara, Turkey. “The year prior, Syria wasn’t nearly as bad. There was no attacks against the U.S. embassy. I didn’t expect it to be as dangerous or crazy as it was.”
Double-majoring in economics and political science, Breen had chosen a study-abroad location relevant to his career goals in international security, with the Middle East region being an obvious choice.
“February 1, I remember I was moving from the dorms to off campus,” Breen recalled. “I had gotten an apartment a few blocks from the U.S. embassy. There was a suicide bomber at the embassy: Someone went in and blew himself up.”
For Breen, who was expecting to go to a party at the embassy later that evening, the bombing came out of nowhere and hit, literally, too close to home.
Like Brotman, Breen had never experienced anything so dangerous, so close. He too figured that UCEAP would shut down the program if the situation got too critical.
“All my friends were worried about security there (in Turkey),” Breen said. “More than anything, I was just excited.”
Of course, Breen said, his friends and family were worried each time news of the occurrences in Turkey reached U.S. media. But growing more accustomed to the city and its way of life, Breen took the incidents in stride and appreciated what his study abroad experience was turning out to be.
Later that spring, protests over planned development for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park took an intensified turn all over the country. Whereas many around the world read about the news, Breen was there in person, bracing the tear gas and seeing the protests outside his apartment.
“The reason why I went there was to see this,” Breen said. “If anything, I was more glad that I got to experience this. You don’t otherwise get to witness the politics and history in the making firsthand.”
“How was coming back?” I asked Villaruel at Cafe Durant in Berkeley over a round of tacos, as we reminisced about our respective Chile experience.
Without hesitation, she answered: “Horrible.”
Villaruel tells me she wants to go back to Chile someday, that she owes it to the country that changed her life. She said she wants to study the social movement in places around the world, to “taste their tear gas.”
I had left the country feeling like Villaruel did — like my study abroad experience was unusual but had pointed me in some clearer direction to fight the good fight, just as those Chilean students did that freezing July morning. Though, I could do without the tear gas.
“It all feels like a dream sometimes,” Villaruel said. “I question myself sometimes if this really happened.”
The sentiment, anecdotally, carries over to many UCEAP returnees.
Since her time abroad, Brotman has gone back to Israel, spending a month there this past summer. Moreover, she has decided to join the Israeli army after graduation, citing an intensified “passion for Israel.”
Breen, too, feels a compulsion to the country he once inhabited. If anything, he said, the challenges confirmed his career goals further.
During each application cycle, the EAP office is bombarded with study-abroad applications. Not all students who go overseas will know the sting of tear gas. Not all students who study abroad want that as their experience. Some students, however, will find themselves in that situation — love it or hate it.
The country we choose says a lot about what we want or at least what we’re expecting. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear until you’re there.
“I know France and Spain are interesting, but they’re not all that different from the U.S.,” Breen said. “I think you can learn more from a nontraditional location. Some will come with extra risks — but that’s all part of the experience.”
Whether they would repeat that experience? The answer was a unanimous yes from all sides.
“One hundred percent,” Brotman said.