Scholars drawn to conflict zones stoke college safety debate
BOSTON (AP) — Some U.S. colleges with overseas-study programs won't touch Ukraine. Tufts University, on the other hand, is drawn to the turmoil in the former Soviet republic, which the U.S. State Department deemed dangerous for travel.
The potential to help activists and scholars, Tufts professor Peter Levine says, outweighs the risks posed by an unstable country. He is leading a conference in Ukraine next month on civics studies, in part because the country exemplifies the struggles of a fledgling democracy.
"American universities, at our best, have people who should be getting on a plane to go to a country that's in crisis," Levine said. "Sometimes they do a lot of good."
As a policy, many colleges refuse to cover costs for students or faculty traveling to areas where the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel warning. But some colleges and universities are attracted to hotspots as subjects of study and as venues to see historic events unfold from the front row.
Institutions of higher learning must weigh the benefits against safety risks. Some insurance policies won't cover travel to troubled areas, and tragic cases underscore that even students can be victims when conflict boils over.
A student at Ohio's Kenyon College was fatally stabbed during a violent protest in Egypt in 2013 after traveling to the country through a private education group. And deadly attacks at universities in Kenya, Syria and elsewhere in recent years spurred a summit of worldwide academics in England this month seeking ways to protect universities from armed conflict.
"There's always a tension between academics and safety," said Vanessa Sterling, associate director of the Study Abroad Office at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pitt was among several schools that canceled or rerouted trips to Ukraine last summer after violence broke out with Russia. Pitt also withdrew students studying in Egypt after its 2011 uprising.
When a travel warning is issued, Michigan State University automatically suspends programs in that location, said Cindy Chalou, associate director for operations in the school's Office of Study Abroad. Many schools have similar policies, although students and faculty can appeal for an exception in certain cases.
"We try to see where we can relocate students to achieve their goals," Chalou said.
The current list of countries with warnings includes Ukraine, Mexico, Kenya and much of the Middle East, among others. But critics complain that U.S. travel warnings are overly broad, blanketing entire countries for regional problems, and that they are updated infrequently.
"State Department warnings are fast to go up and slow to go down, for a lot of political reasons," said Renee Stillings, program director for the School of Russian and Asian Studies, which coordinates study-abroad programs from Woodside, California.
The U.S. only recently lifted a travel warning for Egypt, and many schools still won't send students there.
At Boston's Northeastern University, officials wonder why there are warnings for countries such as Colombia but not Tunisia, where 38 were killed in a June attack at a beach resort.
"To a casual observer, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Brian Gibson, director of the Global Experience Office at Northeastern, which hires a firm to provide global safety advice.
Levine, of Tufts, said he isn't brave; he just knows Ukraine and is confident the area where he's headed is safe.
Despite fears about extremist attacks, Middle East has grown as a study destination in recent years.
In the decade leading up to 2013, the number of U.S. students studying there more than tripled to 4,700, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education. Study-abroad trips globally grew by 80 percent in that span.
International flare-ups can, though, reshape which countries become top destinations.
Egypt was long a magnet for Arabic-language students, but the number from the U.S. has plummeted. Programs in Morocco and Jordan, meanwhile, have surged.
Friction in Ukraine has similarly pushed programs to Moldova, and violence in Mexico dispersed programs to other Spanish-speaking countries.
Students can find ways to skirt their school's protective arm, though. Colleges can't stop students from traveling on their own, and even students in approved countries manage to travel outside the radar of their universities.
Anna Fechtor, a senior at Chicago's DePaul University, was studying in France this past spring when she took a research trip to Istanbul without notifying DePaul. It didn't get her in trouble, but some schools see Turkey as risky.
Fechtor, who worried about government corruption rather than violence, said the trip was worth it.
"It's just kind of a place where history is always unfolding," she said.
At some colleges, officials said it's their job to dissuade students from taking travel risks they might not understand. But those on the other side of the debate said that, in some cases, those risks carry merit.
"There will always be risks, but I think there is a benefit to experiencing and being able to sense firsthand what's going on," said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. "It's important to be there."