In College Study Abroad the Risk Increases the Reward

In 2003, Polly Lynn was certain she had put herself in danger as a study abroad student in Australia when she agreed to go on a remote hike with an older man she had met running at a park.

Lynn, then a 20-year-old student at Middlebury College, had established a rapport with the 35-year-old — they talked about the environment and politics, and then exchanged phone numbers.

He asked her to join him on an outing with a friend, but when the friend canceled and she jumped in the car headed into the hinterlands, she suddenly regretted it all.

"All my friends thought it was terrible idea," said Lynn. "When we were in his Subaru driving two hours out of Melbourne without a cell phone and he pulls over in an abandoned lot, I did too."

On her own in a foreign country, Lynn might have had reason to worry.

British Student Murdered

The ugly side of studying in a foreign country made headlines this week when American student Amanda Knox was implicated in the death of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British student who was living with Knox as the two studied in Italy.

Last week Kercher was brutally murdered, her seminaked body found hidden under a duvet, with a deep knife slash in her throat. Knox is now being held on suspicion of murder.

The Italy case is an extreme example, as the murder of foreign students is very rare. But there are other published stories that illustrate an array of random incidents involving students abroad.

In April, two Florida State University students at the college's Panama campus died when their car plunged off a cliff on a mountainous road. A Barnard College student was raped in Mexico in 2001.

In 1998, three St. Mary's College students were attacked while studying in Guatemala, and an Earlham College student was reportedly sexually harassed, then raped by her Japanese host father, who had been paid by the program.

For Lynn, the Middlebury student in Australia, all turned out well and she said her initial instincts were good.

"He had never been sexual in any way with me and it was nice to have a real friend in the city to show me around," she said. "We went hiking for four hours and got lost in the woods and had conversation."

An Emphasis on Safety

Lynn admitted that taking calculated risks when studying overseas added to her international experience.

"It turned out to be one of the best things I did to have a really authentic experience," said Lynn, who later studied in London and in Barcelona, Spain, and worked in Switzerland.

School year abroad specialists say students should pay attention to personal safety when living overseas. But, they add that crimes against students are rare and that part of the adventure is diving into another culture.

According to The Forum on Education Abroad, the number of college students studying overseas annually has doubled in the last six years to more than 200,000.

Most experience some cross-cultural jolts, but assaults are not common. The unthinkable — murder — is even rarer, say university officials.

"It's tough to get information," said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Pennsylvania-based On Campus Security, which tracks campus crimes.

The organization pushed for passage of the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crimes of domestic colleges and the foreign campuses of those institutions.

Murders on U.S. Campuses

Colleges report an average of about 10 to 20 murders a year on U.S. campuses, according to Carter. An estimated 40 to 50 murders happen among students living in off-campus housing, he said.

Overseas, each college runs its program differently, according to Carter, and many students live on their own at universities not affiliated with their U.S. colleges.

"They are all over the map," said Carter. "It's difficult to get a handle."

Some, like Caroline Scott, a University of Colorado senior from San Francisco, break away from their organized programs.

Scott, 22, spent four months in Jaipur, India, in 2005. Though she does not blame her college or the program — School for International Training — she had a harrowing experience while completing her independent project.

She took a 24-hour trek by bus and train to work at an orphanage for refugee children in the Himalayas. When Scott reached her destination, a case of E. coli she had contracted in India had gotten worse and wasn't responding to antibiotics.

"I got sicker and weaker and lost 20 pounds," said Scott, who called her mother on her cell phone. "She freaked out and told me to go back to Jaipur and go to the hospital."

She boarded a bus back filled with only men. One sat down beside her, pulled down his pants and masturbated. No one on the bus offered help. After seven hours, shaken and afraid, she couldn't find a taxi to take her home.

She was sold a fake bus ticket and was nearly stranded, but eventually made it back to Jaipur.

"I arrived at 3 a.m. and it was completely abandoned," she said. "No one goes outside at night, especially women. I finally found a sleeping rickshaw driver and we managed to find my friend's guest house."

Still, Scott loved India and didn't fault her program. "They did a pretty good job telling you where to go when you were in trouble," she said.

Scott was required to check in once a week, write out her itinerary and contact phone numbers and provide an adviser in the city where she was doing independent study.

"They kept good track of us," said Scott, now back in the United States.

Most students are safe in programs abroad, according to Brian Whalen, president and CEO of The Forum on Education Abroad at Dickinson University, who sent his own daughter to Greece.

The death of the British student was "very unusual," he said.

"That could occur anywhere on a campus in the U.S. We in the field know about it and are improving our programs. In this case it was an aberration."

Americans Behaving Badly

Often, it is American students behaving badly that college officials have to deal with.

The New York Times recently reported that Americans students in Amsterdam used their dorm room windows to dispose of their trash, raining it down on passers-by. Others in Spain got into a knife-and-stick fight with locals.

"Colleges work hard to impress on their students that they are good ambassadors for their college and the U.S.," said Whalen, whose organization issues guidelines on safety and behavior overseas.

Most students who choose these programs are high academic performers and highly motivated, he said.

"But sometimes students see the glossy photos and sometimes sugar coat what the study abroad experience can be," said Whalen. "It's challenging every moment in a different culture, but in the end, they are better students and individuals because of it."

Lynn, who now lives in Denver and works as an overseas tour consultant for high school teachers, agreed.

"Going abroad in the first place is a risk," she said "You never know what you are going to find, especially when you go past your comfort zone. But that is when you start to gain something."

"There's a fine line between trusting your instincts and putting yourself out there," said Lynn. "Be smart and responsible. But a lot of flukey things can happen in America, too."