As political unrest in the Catalonia region continues to develop, Penn Abroad has had to keep a tight watch on the safety and security of students studying abroad in Barcelona.
Catalonia, which is a region in northeastern Spain, has been vying for independence for years. This is partly due to regional discontent between the relatively wealthy region of Catalonia and the less affluent Spanish provinces, said Chair of Penn's Political Science Department Anne Norton in an emailed statement.
Last month, after Catalonian leaders held a controversial referendum to gain independence from Spain, violence broke out on the street of Barcelona. The Spanish police yanked protesters from polls, beating many of them and launching rubber bullets into crowds. The regional government was deposed after the unilateral vote, which has sparked protests in Catalonia against what many see as the Spanish government's suppression of their regional independence.
While the Penn students in the region have remained safe despite the violent incidents that have sprung up around the city, Penn Abroad has been working closely with risk assessment services at Penn and its study abroad implementing partner, the Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad, to ensure this continues to be the case.
“It’s obviously been a pretty hectic time," said College junior Adam Tashman, who is currently studying abroad in Barcelona. “I think it’s hard, especially for Penn and our program, to gauge what’s going on, because nobody really knows, and it changes every day … It’s mostly just strikes and large gatherings in the street to shut everything down.”
Associate Director of Advising & Enrollment at Penn Abroad Kristyn Palmiotto said the students were evacuated from Barcelona to Peñíscola, a town south of Catalonia, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, when a general strike occurred and all universities were closed. The students missed a total of four days during which classes were held.
“When unrest started in Barcelona a number of weeks ago, we were in pretty constant communication with our in-country partner,” Palmiotto said. “The decision was made by the in-country partner to remove students from Barcelona over certain key times when unrest in the city was thought to be at its height."
Palmiotto stressed that the strategy used to keep students in Barcelona informed of current conditions is the same protocol Penn Abroad uses to address security situations in all locations with Penn students, faculty, and staff.
“This is pretty universal for any situation — whenever there’s a city where there’s a protest or disruption, we will coordinate with our international risk management department and identify what students and faculty or staff — because international risk goes beyond students — are in that particular location and then discuss safety measures that we would want to relay to that particular body that is there,” Palmiotto said.
She said in specific cases relating to Penn students, Penn Abroad utilizes in-country implementing partners, such as the CASA Barcelona program, to connect Penn and host universities, and requires them to update it constantly as to any precautions they use to keep students safe.
Palmiotto added that Penn Abroad also uses International SOS, a travel resource that provides them with additional information that Penn specifically uses to further decide what actions might need to be taken.
Palmiotto said another recent example of Penn Abroad’s usage of this protocol was for Penn students studying in Cuba when Hurricane Irma struck the country. To protect those students’ safety, Penn Abroad moved the students from that location to Mérida, Mexico, where its implementing partner, IFSA-Butler, provided programming. The students remained in Mexico from Sept. 7 until Sept. 16 while the hurricane passed through the area, returning upon assessment of the health and safety situation in Cuba and confirmation by the students' homestay families.
Penn Abroad has also used this communication system in the United Kingdom, where many Penn students study abroad. During the series of terrorist attacks that occurred over the summer, Penn had to communicate with the implementing partner Cornell-Penn-Brown UK Centre to check in with all students in London and provide them with support.
Tashman noted that the situation in Barcelona has not affected the safety or security of their lives in the city yet, but it has disrupted their academic schedule.
"While we were gone for those two weeks, we missed class, there was class going on … so we’re a little bit behind," he said.
Norton cautioned that the situation “is quite volatile" and that students planning to travel there in the near future should "have an exit strategy in place, and plan to be both well informed on unfolding events and cautious while in Barcelona (or, arguably, Madrid).”
Nonetheless, Penn Abroad plans to fully implement the Barcelona program next semester, Palmiotto said.
Despite the political instability, students currently studying in Barcelona still say they would recommend the program to others.
College junior Nicholas Navarro said protests have happened in older and more prominent areas in Barcelona, but by and large, living in the city still feels relatively calm.
"From a safety perspective, I don’t think there’s any worry," he said.