American students enrolled in foreign universities typically do it one of three ways. They study through a program sponsored by an American college, go through a study abroad program that coordinates American students' classes and accommodations with a foreign school, or simply enroll in the foreign school on their own.
In most programs students are given a safety lecture at the beginning of the program, and local contacts in case of emergency, said Sonja Thorsvik, the study abroad coordinator at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The university is home to the Center for Global Education, which operates a clearinghouse for information on how to study abroad safely.
There are a handful of rules any student going abroad should know, Thorsvik said.
Students often have a difficult time adjusting to foreign surroundings in their first weeks overseas, Thorsvik said. When choosing a program, students and parents should make sure there is a network in place to help kids negotiate problems with their host families and to determine whether they are just slow acclimating to a foreign country or if there is a real problem.
McCullum said he was not fed breakfast, took to school for lunch a sandwich of cucumbers and cheese, and had a small dinner of beans vegetables and sometimes fish.
He said he sometimes bought food, and once tried stealing it from a supermarket, but was caught.
"To me it seems like this was a personal choice," Thorsvik said. "Students are not prohibited from going outside to take their meals. Students usually eat one or two meals a day with their host families, but can still go out and eat. If everyone fasted for as much and as long as he did, the entire community would be malnourished."
McCullum's father has speculated that the boy took to fasting because he was manipulated by the family and had developed Stockholm syndrome, a disorder in which people under duress sympathize with their captors, the AP reported.
Thorsvik offered an alternative reason why the boy starved. Sometimes, she said, students so wholly throw themselves into the culture in an attempt to "go native," but go too far.
"It is very rare for a student to go to Egypt," he added. "He would have to be very independent. Sometimes those personality types attempt to fully immerse themselves in the culture. They want to experience things so much that they do harm to themselves."