Category: safety abroad

Reflections on the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher Case (February 2011)

Amanda Knox, Original artwork by Hiroshi Mizuno

Tonight, I watched Lifetime Channel’s version of the Amanda Knox conviction. As an international educator, I felt I needed to watch this movie. As a journalist, I have tried to keep my opinion out of my writing.  I have tried to instead focus on what this case has meant for study abroad.

For study abroad, I believe this case should have meant a huge wake up call.  I am repeatedly surprised by how few of my colleagues agree. I have been told on more than one occasion that our role is simply to inform students that local laws preside. But should our job also include giving them a sense of what the local laws could mean in their lives abroad by providing more specific detail?  Is it our responsibility, morally and ethically, to spend quality time explaining the local laws and illustrating the gaps between local laws and that of the home country? Should we also be communicating with parents/guardians about how we would need to work together with clear action steps during times of crises?

Or do we say “not my job.”

Please let me be clear here:  I am not pointing fingers at anyone in this particular case.  I haven’t contacted Ms. Knox’s home school to ask them what they did/didn’t do.  That isn’t the point. Instead, I am here to raise questions about how we, as professionals, might operate in our field and to encourage discussion.

And this case, in my opinion, deserves a lot more discussion.

What happened to Ms. Knox in Italy is something we should ALL be concerned about.  It should have raised a serious discussion about pre-departure information and emergency planning in study abroad.

Let’s face it – At the end of the day, do you want to be sitting in front of the TV and see Hayden Pannetiere playing one of YOUR study abroad students on Lifetime’s Monday night movie?

I sure don’t.

At this juncture, I can’t share my opinion about what I think happened.  Perhaps in the future, but not at this time. Those who know me as a friend and close colleague do know my feelings about the case and will vouch for me when I do eventually write about it.

For now, I can share this: I strongly believe that our field should be talking about what prevents us from talking with our students, in much more detail, about the realities of what can happen in a different legal system.

So, I’ll ask again: How has your campus changed its policies/processes related to emergency and safety planning as a result of the Amanda Knox case? If the answer is “my campus hasn’t,” what would you like to see your campus do differently?

For those of you who want to answer but are afraid of being “identified,” I will simply say that you can comment on this blog anonymously.  Your name will not appear on my website and I will not know who you are, nor will any of our readers.

I invite your feedback.  In fact, I crave a hearty discussion about this case.  I challenge you to have one with me.

(NOTE:  I am referring to the question above – How has your campus changed its policies/processes related to emergency and safety planning as a result of the Amanda Knox case? If the answer is “my campus hasn’t,” what would you like to see your campus do differently? I am NOT asking you to have a hearty discussion about whether or not Amanda Knox killed Meredith Kercher.  She was convicted of doing so and the case is under appeal.  If you want to debate her guilt or innocence, this is NOT the site to do so at – there are plenty of other sites for that, so please visit them instead.)

In closing, I wish peace to all of those involved in this horrific case.  Needless to say, may Meredith Kercher, a reportedly delightful young woman from England who was studying abroad in Italy and brutally murdered, rest in peace.

New Zealand Earthquake and Study Abroad

A 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the South Island of New Zealand in the early afternoon, local time.

Ideally, you will have an established and practiced emergency plan in place that you can follow. If you do, your phones are ringing and your emails are zipping across the world as you read this, and you should feel confident in your ability to handle this crisis.

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Colby Study Abroad Professor Resigns After Alleged Inappropriate Behavior

Tenured Professor of Economics at Colby College (USA), Philip H. Brown, resigned in late January 2011 after evidence surfaced that he had taken semi-nude photos of at least one female study abroad student. He allegedly took the photos via a hidden bathroom camera while on a "Jan Plan" winter session course in China. The study abroad students had been blogging from a shared lap top during the trip and accidentally discovered the photos after losing a blog posting and searching for it in the computer's "garbage bin."

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Reflections on Emergency Planning for Advisers of Study Abroad Students in Egypt

Egypt. It IS the news. But when you're a study abroad adviser who had sent students to Egypt for the spring semester, your mind is focused: Safety. Their safety. Comforting and advising parents. Working with the partner institutions abroad. Communication, even when there is no internet.

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Guns and Study Abroad

I traveled to India several years ago and one of my fondest memories was chatting with a young boy in Varanasi. He approached me while I was watching a beautiful performance along the Ganges River. He spoke perfect English at 9 years old and asked me some questions about why I was in India. He guessed, eventually, where I was from. And when he did, the first question he asked was, "Lady, where is your gun?"

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Interview with Steve Moore: Safety and Emergency Planning in Study Abroad

Today's posting is an interview with Steve Moore, retired FBI agent and past Deputy Director of Public Safety at Pepperdine University. (This interview was done via skype - thank goodness for technology!)

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Study Abroad: How are Muslims Being Impacted by Stereotypes?

The Wisdom of our Youth

The New York Times recently reported about the increased number of American students studying abroad in the Middle East.  The article, Life Lessons in the Middle East, covers several students’ experiences at institutions such as the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut, documenting their language study and travel.  The article states that these students have been not been met with any anti-American sentiment, rather with the occasional disagreement regarding foreign policy.  This in an uplifting piece, suggesting that despite increased conflict in the world, we still seek to learn about each other and to explore our commonalities, moving beyond the negative stereotypes that are frequently perpetuated about this region of the world.

Sounds peachy, right?

I thought so, until I heard a radio interview about the recent situation that Mr. Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim/US citizen, found himself in while attempting to return home to the US after a period abroad.  Mr. Wehelie was born in Fairfax, Virginia to Somali parents and he spent 18 months studying in Yemen. He left in early May, only to be told upon arrival in Egypt (where he was to change planes on his way home to Virginia) that he was on the “no fly list” and could not board the plane.  Why? Because he had spoken with some questionable people who were being watched by the FBI while in Yemen. He claims that he had shared no more than polite conversation with these people and that he simply wanted to return home to “his mother’s cooking.” Despite being questioned by the FBI several times, he was not permitted to return home until 2 months later, and only after legal intervention.

Ironically, Mr. Wehelie had gone to Yemen to study Arabic at his mother’s request.  According to MSNBC’s article, Wehelie’s family said “it was natural for the family to send him there to study. Many Somalis live in Yemen, and educational opportunities there are cheaper than in other parts of the Middle East.”

Muslims abroad are increased targets for discrimination, even when simply attempting to earn educational credentials to further their careers. Mr. Olugu Ukpai, a Christian Nigerian PhD candidate studying in England, wrote a heartfelt op-ed in the New American Media (NAM) that was picked up by the Muslim Observer earlier this year about his experience as a student in England.  Prompted by the media’s reporting about Mr. Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in December, Ukpai describes his concerns about Nigerians being labeled as being from “the hotbed of Al Queda,” as the media seemed to describe his home country after the December incident. As a result of one Nigerian’s involvement in an attempted terrorist attack, Nigeria is now on a list of 14 countries whose citizens will be singled out for additional screening when coming to the US. (My humble opinion is that this is ridiculous; have we not realized that anyone, including an American, can be part of Al Queda’s network?)  Ukpai also writes about the fear that Nigerian parents have of sending their children abroad, skeptical of “cults” that their children could be exposed to. The article also cites a study by the University of Notre Dame in 2009 that found that parents tended to know only 10 percent of what their children were doing abroad.

We all want to live in as safe a world as possible, yet how does our nation strike a fine balance between protecting our citizens and not discriminating against Muslims?  It is not ironic that the number of Americans going abroad to study in the Middle East are being countered with increasing numbers of Muslims studying abroad landing on the no fly list (pun intended) once outside of the US? Education is supposed to be about having new experiences, yet if one portion of the potential student equation is constantly questioned about their role in the intercultural dialogue, how can we ever move forward to a more peaceful world?  Don’t we create more of the same old “us/them” mentality this way?  And isn’t that completely counterproductive to learning in a cross-cultural setting?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and experiences around this issue.  Feel free to comment.

(Note:  I have edited this article since its original posting to clarify two points: 1) Mr. Ukpai is a Christian Nigerian and 2) Mr. Ukpai’s original op-ed was published in the New American Media.  It was picked up at a later date by the Muslim Observer, which is where I read the piece initially.)