Two young women lost their lives while on study abroad in Perugia, Italy. Meredith Kercher (right in photo), a British student from Leeds University on an exchange program, was brutally murdered inside her new home in Italy only two months into her program abroad. Amanda Knox (left in photo), an American study abroad student from the University of Washington, was found guilty of participating in the crime and sentenced to 26 years. I have no idea if Ms. Knox is guilty or not as I was not there, but I do recognize that losing 26 years of your life if a loss nevertheless, and a particularly sour one if you are eventually found innocent.
Today, newspapers in Europe and the US are ferociously covering this story, some sensationalizing it with tales of a sex game gone wrong, drugs, playful nicknames, dramatic photos and video of family members’ commentary, tears and anger. The Knox family will appeal the decision, the Kercher family will try to move on now that there is a semblance of “justice” for their beloved daughter.
My particular interest in this tragic story is in regards to how the perception of study abroad will be effected, which generally hasn’t been covered by the international press.
Sometime in 2008, a senior administrator at a local university suddenly turned to me at a public event and remarked “I wouldn’t let my kid study abroad – with that girl in Italy being in prison for this long without a trial. Forget it, it isn’t safe to send your kid abroad, even to Italy.” Dumbfounded might have been the appropriate word for my initial response. I pulled myself together rather quickly and simply commented that there was an investigation going on into a young woman’s murder, and that takes time. I think I managed to add that admitting to doing drugs abroad and then not having a clear story of your events that evening (which was in the news at the time of our discussion) was probably not a sound approach for getting out of prison quickly in any country – that and if your “kid” wasn’t doing these things, then perhaps there wouldn’t be any more for a parent to worry about when their “kid” is at home vs overseas studying. Had I not been so thrown off by his question, I hope that I would have mentioned that New York City has been a relatively safe place despite 9/11 and a history of violent crime when compared to other cities around the world , and that thankfully people who still choose to study here recognize that acts of violence and hatred in a place like New York are what should propel us to shove fear aside and venture out in the world to explore truth firsthand.
I’ve reflected on that conversation and recognize that parents latching themselves onto a story like this may result in a specific barrier to study abroad, and this will be of growing concern to those of us who work tirelessly to send our students abroad. The helicopter parent is not a new phenomenon, but will this case bring them out in droves when it comes to program selection and decision making? Or will they even allow their sons and daughters to get to the point of application for a study abroad program? Is this a US issue, or do parents in other regions of the world feel the same need to be increasingly involved in the decision to study abroad? How is this being discussed around the world?
The press has certainly covered the importance of university policy and operational procedures as a result of the Knox/Kercher case. The University of Washington has instituted “The Global Support Project (GSP)” described on their web page as “working closely with the Office of Global Affairs, faculty and staff across all campuses to create a draft university-wide global emergency management plan. The plan will knit together best practices of study abroad programs at both the UW and nationally.” In October 2009, The Seattle Pi news wrote an excellent report on the changes that Knox’s home university made, seemingly in light of her arrest and other study abroad related incidents abroad at other schools, which included tightening up policy and a review of overall process that appears to have resulted in the “Global Support Project.”
This case also highlights the importance of communication between home school administrators and students abroad. The University of Washington pro-actively emailed Ms. Knox to offer advice and support; Ms. Knox replied with an account of what happened when she found out about Ms. Kercher’s death. This email ultimately became part of the legal case in Italy. Legal counsel is increasingly important in cases like these.
Being from such a litigious country, I wonder if the Knox family eventually intends to file any type of suit regarding the housing selection process for this program in Italy. My understanding, and please note that I have not interviewed anyone at the University of Washington, is that the students selected housing in Italy. (If I am incorrect, please feel free to clarify the facts.) Was there something about the location of the apartment that could have left Ms. Knox exposed – for example, I have read that there is a garage down the road that had a reputation for drug deals? I do not know, but it reminds me the importance of knowing who your legal counsel is before making programmatic decisions such as housing.
I’d be very interested in your comments about how parents, students and administrators around the world are reacting to this verdict. Is it business as usual (no one can be safe anywhere in the world)? Or perhaps your university is tackling a safety and communication protocol in light of this case? How are students responding? Will universities directly address this with parents or wait for questions or possibly enrollment figures to come in? Are there trends across regions that we should be noting? Please share your thoughts – this dialogue is not happening across the web and it needs to be discussed.