Study Abroad After 9/11: Meeting Challenges in a Changing World
On September 11 some 400 UCLA students were studying abroad through the UC Education Abroad Program (EAP). Emily Mohajeri Norris, the new administrative director of the UCLA EAP office, looks at how the program and its students see study abroad in light of recent events.
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Since its beginnings 40 years ago, the UC Education Abroad Program has weathered various events that have shaken the world. Despite the challenges of world events, the program has expanded its partnerships to over 140 institutions in 33 countries.
This year, nearly 500 UCLA students will have spent up to a year abroad through EAP studying a variety of disciplines from tropical biology in Costa Rica to economics in Singapore.
In addition to enriching their academic experiences, EAP impacts students' views of the world, the United States, and themselves in ways that are often life changing. In a year such as this, the impact seems even greater.
Students Abroad Deal with 9/11
When the first jet hit the World Trade Center on September 11, the vast majority of UCLA students abroad were already wide awake and encountering the first clips of news, from walking by televisions in public shopping malls, to receiving cell phone calls from worried friends in their host country.
After only four weeks in Barcelona, UCLA student Allison Townsend could not fully understand the local friend who phoned and explained in rapid Spanish what had happened, so she thought he was saying that he was watching the news with twins from New York. It was not until she returned to the residence hall that the awful events of the day unfolded before her eyes on the lobby television. Even then, she and fellow American students struggled with confusion until they finally found an English-language news station.
At the same time in a deli in Italy, Amy Bidwell stood with friends and stared at the television for an hour and a half. They relied on spotty translation from two Italian men, who "were having a hard time translating because they too were in such shock over what had happened."
Most EAP students, especially those for whom proficiency in the host country language was not required, faced an incredible challenge of trying to interpret the news in a language with which they had little or no familiarity. Banafsheh Khorram recalled watching the news in Turkey.
"I could not understand what the [reporters] were saying," she said, "so it shocked and horrified me even more."
Michel Huston reflected on the distancing impact watching the news in Japanese had on her. "I still don't really feel the same attachment to the attacks that I think I would have were I in the US at the time; to a large degree I think this is due to not understanding the news here."
Despite their confusion, most EAP students were touched by condolences expressed to them by strangers and friends in their host country. The outpouring of sympathy from students from all over the world studying at her university in South Korea led Esther Park to conclude that "the entire world really is plugged in to one another."
This sense of global connectedness is part of what Education Abroad offers, according to Val Rust, faculty director of the UCLA EAP office. "As we reflect on the events of September 11, 2001, two foreign study insights are evident," said Rust. "First, we are reminded of the need for greater knowledge and wisdom of the world." This may explain why the statewide EAP campus offices report a surprising increase in student interest in studying abroad since September 11.
Secondly, notes Rust, "We are discovering how insular are our views of events such as September 11. Our students studying abroad have perspectives about these events that stand in stark contrast to views many Americans take for granted. Students abroad have perspectives that are more inclusive and tolerant."
Many EAP students appreciate those perspectives, particularly at this historic time. Angel Cheng described the impact studying in China has had on her worldview. "Studying abroad has allowed me to expand my thinking beyond the United States and to be more aware of other countries' conditions and dilemmas." In Denmark, Erik Johnsen said that he looks at current events "with a more skeptical ... eye than I would have otherwise."
Education Abroad administrators know, however, that these valuable lessons do not come without risk. The danger to students' being cut off from family and friends as a result of political conflict or historic events is not taken lightly.
While EAP has always had systems in place to protect the safety and well being of its students, it has reinforced and enhanced them since September 11. EAP study centers have increased their collaboration with host country police and US embassies and monitor more closely the political developments around them. At the system-wide office in Santa Barbara, a 24-hour emergency EAP hotline stands ready to receive calls from parents or students in need.
Worth the Risk
It seems most EAP students would agree that the benefits of study abroad, especially at such a critical junction in international relations, have far outweighed the risks. To other UCLA students contemplating study abroad, one EAP veteran advised, "I encourage students to go outside the bubble of the US and meet the world, so that ideas can be shared." By studying abroad, said another, "we are not only furthering our academic education, but we are also receiving an education in life."
The reward for all of us is study abroad's long-term contribution to global understanding.
"Through foreign study," said Rust, "students are able to acquire language, social, and cultural skills necessary to help make the world more secure and peaceful."
(Daily Bruin reporter Chris Young contributed to this article.)
For information on EAP programs visit the UCLA Education Abroad office at 1119 Hershey Hall (310) 825-4995; or the EAP website.
More information on EAP?s security precautions for students, and comments from EAP students who were abroad during fall quarter of 2001, are available here.