When disaster struck in Paris last week, Penn Abroad went into emergency mode.
Last Friday, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in central Paris left nearly 130 people dead — with the death toll still rising — and more than 300 injured. As the entire city was thrown into a state of emergency, study abroad programs in Paris responded accordingly.
While at Penn, students have the comfort of knowing the city’s largest private police force is watching out for them, students do not always experience the same level of security while studying abroad. Each semester, Penn Abroad prepares for handling the the possibility of students facing emergencies abroad.
Almost as soon as news of the attacks broke, a phone chain started in the Columbia in Paris at Reid Hall joint program, in which 19 Penn students are enrolled this semester. Administrators both on site and in New York spent hours calling all of the students enrolled in the program. Posts were also made in the group’s Facebook page and an email was sent to students from the on-site Columbia Director Lindsey Schram urging students to “please be in contact right away.”
Simultaneously, Penn students also received several email updates from International SOS, a partner program of Penn’s that is described on the Penn Abroad website as “the leading medical assistance, international healthcare and security assistance company,” as the situation developed.
“Local media late on 13 November reported at least three security incidents in the capital Paris,” an email sent Nov. 13 at 11:26 p.m. Central European Time said. “The provenance of the blasts is unclear. Early reports claimed there were a number of casualties in the shootings, though this remains unconfirmed. The situation remains fluid and details are still emerging.”
An email sent a few hours later encouraged travellers to “stand fast in secure location amid multiple security incidents.”
Late at night on Nov. 13, Penn Director of International Risk Management Jaime Molyneux sent an email to all Penn students in France. “In light of the ongoing security events, attacks and hostage situation in Paris, I want to check-in and make sure that you are o.k. and not impacted by the situation,” it read. “I understand you may be far removed geographically from Paris but I am reaching out to all travelers in France in case you are on excursion in Paris,” the email continued before asking students to check in and confirm that they were safe.
The afternoon following the attacks, Penn Abroad Associate Director Rochelle Keesler, who oversees all study abroad programs in France, sent an email to all Penn students reminding them of all on-campus resources available to students while abroad, including Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Intervention Services.
According to Penn Abroad’s website, “No one can guarantee or assure the safety of participants or eliminate all risks from studying abroad. However, in order to make informed decisions and recommendations about the safety and security of our students abroad, Penn Abroad consults Penn’s faculty and administrative offices as well as external resources and local contacts/staff on site.”
Before going abroad, students are also encouraged to enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveller Enrollment Program, also known as STEP, and are required to register with Penn’s Global Activities Registry. While STEP functions independently of Penn Abroad, both programs connect travellers with relevant and up-to-date security information.
Penn Abroad Director Nigel Cossar said that Penn Abroad’s safety precautions went into place immediately. “As soon as Penn was alerted to the events unfolding in Paris, the Global Incident Management Team came together with the primary purpose of ensuring the safety and security of Penn students, staff and faculty traveling in Paris. This is a mammoth task, made easier by Penn students who have registered their travel details on the Global Activity Register at Penn,” he wrote in an email.
Cossar also wrote that the GIMT remained on alert for the rest of the weekend and that they maintained communication with Penn students abroad and their emergency contacts. He added that meetings had been convened at Penn between “senior international and academic leadership” concerning what other resources could be provided to Penn students.
The following Monday, Cossar sent another email to Penn students in Paris. “Our thoughts remain with you and all those impacted by the tragic events in Paris over the weekend. Penn Abroad continues to work with university officials and partners to monitor the security situation closely and your safety is our top priority in doing so,” the email read. “We have received no indications from our security experts that they recommend withdrawing students at this time. Guidance from our partner schools on the ground in Paris is similar,” it added.
In an email to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Cossar also acknowledged that Penn Abroad was providing on-campus support to French nationals, saying that “International Student and Scholar Services along with University Life have been working over the weekend to ensure all of the French community connected to Penn are provided with support.”
“Whilst we are saddened by the most recent events in Paris, this will not deter the University in providing future study abroad opportunities to students. It is through these experiences that students garner the riches and understanding of cultures, races, languages and more,” Cossar’s email said.
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