The safety of study abroad evolves in shadow of recent terrorist attacks

Grace Cha/File

In the span of just two weeks, the UC Berkeley community lost two students to terrorist attacks: Tarishi Jain and Nicolas Leslie, were killed last summer while studying abroad.

With another 1,804 UC Berkeley students enrolled in a study abroad program this academic year, campus study abroad programs — and study abroad programs across the country —  bear the responsibility of protecting students when they leave the United States.

After the summer’s tragedies, Berkeley Study Abroad Director Darin Menlove said that, similar to other universities, UC Berkeley reviewed its safety and security practices. According to Menlove, however, the campus study abroad mission and policies “withstood the test” during the attacks, and therefore remained largely unchanged in the wake of the students’ deaths.

“Health and safety have always been the top priority,” Menlove said.

The month of July 2016, in which Jain was killed at a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Leslie was killed while celebrating Bastille Day festivities in Nice, France, brought the terror of senseless violence to the UC Berkeley campus in quick, sobering succession.

The actual threat of death through terrorist acts is, notwithstanding emotional toll, however, statistically less than being killed in a car crash — which has taken more than 40,000 lives in the United States so far this year.

“It’s hard for people to conceptualize in the heads the immensely massive denominator of all the time and space wherein people are perfectly safe (at least from terrorism),” said campus professor and Associate Dean of Public Policy Jack Glaser, in an email. “The small numerator of actual terrorist events, which is especially concrete because we see actual images, looms disproportionately large in our memories, so we overestimate the risk.”

Out of 985 international terrorist attacks in 2017, there were 5,725 fatalities, as recorded by the Esri and PeaceTech Lab. An overwhelming majority of these fatalities occurred in the countries of Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and Bangladesh — none of which are places where students studied abroad since fall 2016, and all of which now have travel warnings from the state department.

In reaction to the summer 2016 attacks, 22 UC Berkeley students created a course looking at open-source, technological solutions to problems in transnational security. The course, titled Data Science and Transnational Security Collider, challenges teams to develop proposals that use technology to address problems of international terrorism and terrorist financing. Final proposals are then presented to NGOs and policymakers in Washington D.C.

UC Berkeley senior Leah Hotchkiss was one of the over 1,800 students who went abroad this past year. Hotchkiss spent her spring semester studying at Lund University in southern Sweden.

According to Hotchkiss, many students in her program frequently traveled north to Sweden’s largest city, Stockholm — a fact that was on her mind when she saw the news of a then-unconfirmed terrorist attack at a shopping center in the country’s capital city.

As it turned out, none of the students in Hotchkiss’s study abroad program were directly affected. Hotchkiss’s Swedish friend and Lund University classmate Olivia Kjellgren, however, was at that very shopping center at the time of the attack.

Despite witnessing the attack which killed four, and left several others injured, Kjellgren maintains that she feels more safe in Sweden than anywhere else.

“Those kinds of events can happen literally anywhere and they shouldn’t stop you from living your life, you just have to be smart in certain situations and use your best judgment,” Kjellgren said in a Facebook message.

The attack, Hotchkiss said, only contributed to what she described as a “climate of uncertainty” that was already present throughout Europe.

“Regardless of world turmoil, our resolve and determination are undiminished as we recognize more than ever the importance of providing opportunities for cross-cultural learning,” Menlove, said in an email. “We understand more than ever the importance of mutual respect, common understanding, and desire to make the world a better place for all people.”

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.