Last March, College sophomore and Daily Pennsylvanian Sports Photo Editor Ilana Wurman received notice that the summer study abroad program in Tel Aviv she had considered was canceled. The notice, which was sent in an email, gave no explanation for the cancellation.
The program was new; last summer would have been its first year in operation. The Penn Summer Abroad website no longer lists Tel Aviv as one of its location options.
This was not the first time study abroad plans have been canceled, adjusted or changed. In recent years, many students have altered or sometimes canceled their study abroad plans to reflect current international affairs.
Penn Abroad Director Nigel Cossar stressed that student and faculty safety is the number one priority in dealing with study abroad programs and that risk factors are always taken into consideration when either canceling or adding programs. “We work closely with our partners on campus and around the globe in support of this endeavor,” Cossar said in an email.
While Penn Abroad provided Wurman with no reasoning for the cancellation of its Tel Aviv summer option, it is far from the first time Penn has canceled study abroad programs.
In 2011, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Penn Abroad would pull sponsorship for programs in Egypt in the wake of a travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State, and that students would be encouraged to apply for backup options elsewhere in the Middle East.
A year later, Penn Abroad released another announcement from the Department of State, announcing the suspension of student visas to and from Syria. Currently, the only official Penn-sponsored programs in the Middle East listed on Penn Abroad’s website are in Israel, Morocco or Jordan. This semester, 24 students are studying abroad in the Middle East — 18 in Israel and six in Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan.
Cossar said that the decision to cancel previously offered programs was based on a number of factors, citing “natural disaster, civil unrest, public health outbreak, militancy or conflict” as examples.
Penn Abroad maintains a list of heightened risk regions on their website. While some students can petition to travel to regions marked as “Medium” or “High” risk by International SOS, an emergency and travel information service, students are almost universally restricted from studying in regions marked as “Extreme.”
College and Wharton junior Andrew Gegios was among the students who found themselves dissatisfied with the Penn-sponsored study abroad programs. As an Arabic language target in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, Gegios knew that he would study abroad in the Middle East, but said he felt underwhelmed by his choices.
“I felt kind of closed-off. Like I have to pick from one of these,” he said. Instead, Gegios petitioned to participate in a program in Beirut, Lebanon. In order to apply, he had to complete a formal application in addition to a form petitioning to have the outside program approved by Penn and another form petitioning to travel to a Heightened Risk Region. Lebanon is marked as a “Medium” risk region, with the areas close to Syrian borders carrying a “High” risk label.
But while Gegios had to do some extra legwork, he said that he was not concerned about studying abroad in a region with supposedly higher risk.
“I’ve studied abroad a lot, am pretty independent and I even visited Beirut briefly last summer. I think because I had a very good grasp of the security situation and am pretty careful and aware when abroad, I had no reason to worry,” he said. “There’s always the worry that the situation might deteriorate, but there was no reason [to expect that].”
But while Gegios found no reason to worry, another student did. A College and Wharton junior, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy concerns, had intended to study abroad in Lyon, France the fall of her junior year.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks around France — the most prominent being a shooting at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 11 people dead and as many injured — the student said her parents grew concerned about her safety.
Just a few days after the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in January, a kebab shop near a mosque in Lyon exploded. While there was no direct connection made between the two attacks, the student said the sequence of events was enough to make her rethink her plans to study abroad.
While the student said that she didn’t have any specific reason to think she would be unsafe, she ultimately decided that she didn’t want to take the risk. “I wasn’t as concerned as my parents, but then I thought about it and realized that they wouldn’t worry for no reason,” she said.
She said that once her parents grew concerned, they contacted her advisor, who said that her safety could not be guaranteed. Instead, the student said she is working with her advisor now to find a way to study abroad during a later semester.
While for some students, world events can close doors on study abroad options, for others, it can open them. Over the summer, President Obama announced an reopening of borders with longtime political rival Cuba, and College junior and former 34th Street Editor Mark Paraskevas was there to witness the impact.
The program, which is a Penn-sponsored program, has been offered for several years, according to Paraskevas. But, compared to past participants, who struggled with navigating an adversarial country, Paraskevas said conditions are improving. Five students are currently studying in Cuba this semester.
“Our Internet access now is probably better than for kids last year, because of the changing processes,” he cited as an example, saying that WiFi hotspots are now affordable for “almost any traveler.”
Last year, Cuba was recognized by the United States as an “interest zone,” and therefore did not have its own embassy. Now, not only is the embassy reopened, but Paraskevas said that he got to visit and meet the interim ambassador.
Also as a result of the more relaxed borders, Paraskevas said that his mother, who came to visit him, was able to fly directly from JFK airport in New York, “which is a very new thing.” Past participants in study abroad programs in Cuba, including Paraskevas, had to fly to Cuba on a chartered flight from Florida.
While Penn Abroad did not comment on any specifics, Cossar said that any consideration would rely on risk assessments of the region in question, among other factors
For Gegios, though, Penn Abroad’s priority should be in making as many options available to students as possible. “I think they definitely should be forming new partnerships to expand the Penn Abroad network, so students can [have] more choices.”
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