Four months into her gap year, East Alum Anna Dierks walked down the sidewalk in downtown Quito, Ecuador with a group of her friends. In front of the neon lights of a bar, she found herself in a situation her gap year program had warned her about during safety training a few months earlier.
A man jumped right in front of her and started yelling untranslatable Spanish so close she could smell the beer in his breath.
After a few minutes of chaos, the man moved on and they continued walking with eyebrows raised, a little shaken up. Later in the night Dierks reached into her jean jacket pocket to text her family about the unnerving experience — she realized the man was simply distracting her to have an easier time stealing her phone.
Thirty-four percent of East students from a survey of 255 responded saying they are planning on traveling abroad without a guardian in the next year. According to self defense experts Mary Hiesberger and David DiBella, teenagers’ safety while traveling abroad is dependent on educating themselves about the differences in culture and laws so they aren’t the perfect target for attackers — a young, confused teenager. Because the number of students studying abroad is increasing around 4 percent a year, according the the U.S. Department of State, and summer traveling programs are coming up, educational resources provided by national travel programs are being used more often.
Worldwide, one person experiences an aggravated assault every 36.9 seconds, one person is raped every 1.9 minutes and one hate crime is reported to the police every 69 minutes, according to a crime clock sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice. While these statistics are representative of the world overall, young travelers abroad are more at risk for these tragic events, according to Hiesberger, the founder of a safety education company called Prepared to Prevent.
Worldwide, one person experiences an aggravated assault every 36.9 seconds, one person is raped every 1.9 minutes and one hate crime is reported to the police every 69 minutes
“Teenagers and young adults are, in general, more at risk to be targets of crime because [they often have] a general attitude of thinking nothing will happen to [them],” Hiesberger said. “They need to be educating themselves on what the different norms are to be prepared.”
The East Spanish department sends students through a program called Amigos to travel to Latin American countries and experience the culture of a foreign place — everything from the neighborhood soccer games in Spain to the musical performances in Ecuador. Amigos is the industry leader in health and safety management because they spend months educating students pre-departure on the culture and what to do in an emergency.
Sophomore Ethan Riscovalleze is leaving June 25 to travel to Chimborazo, Ecuador for six weeks. Since January, he’s been meeting on Sunday afternoons to talk about everything from cultural norms to what kind of Spanish he will need to work on in preparation.
A normal meeting includes running through scenarios to work on adhering to the cultural norms of the student’s host country, discussing ways to be an advocate for themselves or practicing conversations with local youth and adults.
Every student enrolled in the Amigos program is also required to register with the U.S. Embassy in their host country, so the Embassy knows they’re in the country and will have an easier time locating them if an emergency such as a political riot is to occur.
If the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs issues a travel advisory for a country that students were supposed to be traveling to, Amigos headquarters would move the students to another location. The travel advisories are updated daily, and can also help plan trips for those traveling abroad outside of an agency.
“We couldn’t go to Mexico a couple years ago because the teachers were having a strike,” Recruitment Coordinator for KC Amigos Carol Swezy said. “A strike seems so trivial here, but they had guns and it was getting violent, so Amigos picked up and moved to a different community and all those kids got re-routed. Health and safety is the national organization’s number one priority.”
Senior Iris Hyde went to Chimborazo, Ecuador last summer and felt the Amigos program prepared her as much as they could.
“I had an amazing experience,” Hyde said. “Amigos was very supportive, while also giving us space to be independent and further develop leadership and communication skills.”
Students should visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs website for information about their destination before traveling, according to a U.S. Department of State official. The website provides safety and security information for every country of the world, which can help assess the risks of travel. They mention a list of crimes that are common in other countries, such as pickpocketing in The Czech Republic or terrorism in Spain.
Laws in foreign countries often times contrast with the American laws students have grown up around. In Trinidad, it’s illegal for anyone other than military officials to wear camo.
“Someone in our [mission trip] group didn’t know [camo was illegal],” senior Paige Prothe said. “I mean it’s not something we’re used to, and he was wearing camo shorts. A group of like 10 people came up to him and started yelling at him, which scared us all. I didn’t know what was happening and it was the first time I traveled without my parents.”
Because of laws and cultural differences that Americans aren’t accustomed to before travel, every Peace Corps volunteer goes through around six months of extensive safety training throughout their service, according to the Peace Corps Public Affairs specialist Brandalyn Bickner. The vast majority of volunteers feel safe where they live and work.
Before the start of her senior year, East Alum Abby Tierney started traveling alone through the Amigos program. After spending 10 weeks in Ecuador, she found her passion for serving others and five years later decided she wanted to join the Peace Corps — she’s currently working on a neighborhood improvement project in Panama.
“When Abby traveled to Panama, I was really worried for her safety because [Panama] is so remote and she hadn’t built relationships yet,” Abby’s mother Bonny said. “That vulnerability really scared me, but as the parent I have a lot of confidence that she’s going to watch out for herself and I know she’s prepared. It’s amazing watching her do all these great things.”
The Institute for International Education of Students conducted a survey to show the impacts of studying abroad. Ninety-six percent reported increased self-confidence and 98 percent stated that study abroad programs helped them better understand their own cultural values and biases.
After finishing her gap year, Dierks was able to come back to her family full of stories to tell — releasing baby turtles into the Caribbean Sea, bike rides to a smoothie shop in Ecuador, bungee jumping off the highest jump in Latin America and spending her 19th birthday in Paris.
“It’s a sad reality to imagine that I would be so scared I wouldn’t have experienced all the amazing things that I did,” Dierks said. “I think there’s a difference in being aware and being scared. It’s important to know the reality and be aware and willing to prepare, but I think the idea of fear getting in the way of ever trying something like that is silly.”