Following a spate of violence in the Gaza strip and other regions across Israel, Brown students confirmed last week that their study abroad programs would continue normal operations provided the violence did not escalate further. Last Wednesday, Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, stemming the violence for the present. The University's monitoring of the situation due to the region's instability follows a string of decisions to evacuate students from various study abroad locations in the last few years.
Since 2011, students have been evacuated from programs in Egypt and Tunisia due to political turmoil across the Middle East and from programs in Japan after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
"Every situation is different," said Kendall Brostuen, director of the Office of International Programs, who emphasized the need to obtain the most accurate and updated information possible when considering potentially threatening situations. But whether students are studying through Brown-affiliated programs or with programs offered through other universities, "for all of us, the most important thing is the safety and security of the students," he said.
As with any kind of travel, there are inherent risks to consider when studying abroad, Brostuen said.
Brown has established protocols in each of its programs abroad for addressing emergencies, and the Office of International Programs remains in continuous contact with staff on site and on campus to ensure student safety. When vetting alternative programs not offered through Brown, one of the most important considerations is the existence of emergency action protocol, Brostuen said.
Recent technological advancements have enabled stronger and more constant communication of essential information, Brostuen said, noting that 10 years ago, it was not "as easy to get (your) hands on information very quickly about what's happening around the world." He said a downside of such an instantaneous stream of information, made available through a variety of news services, is that "there's also a tendency to sensationalize." The OIP primarily relies on sources such as the International SOS and the Overseas Security Advisory Council for accurate, unbiased information, he said.
Following the initial outbreak of violence in Egypt, internet and cellphone communications were shut down, but program directors in the U.S. were able to maintain limited contact with the program in Egypt through landline usage, The Herald reported at the time. Amanda Labora '13, one of the students evacuated from Alexandria, said she also received a call at the airport from Brostuen to check in and to let her know the logistics of returning to complete the semester at Brown if she chose to do so.
And when evacuating Tunisia in September, Sarah Forman '13, a former Herald senior staff writer, said she was able to text with a dean on call at Brown to help facilitate the transition to France where program participants were relocated.
In areas that could potentially face a threat, the OIP depends especially on first-hand accounts of what is happening on the ground from on-site staff and personnel at the Brown-approved programs, Brostuen said. Both abroad and on campus, University officials and third-party officials are always monitoring the situation, he added.
When unexpected instability arises that might result in evacuating students, the OIP relies on state department bulletins and follows "the lead of those who are closest to things on the ground," Brostuen said.
The University most recently faced the potential need to evacuate students from Israel in light of increased unrest in the region earlier this month.
But the two Brown students studying in Tel Aviv and Haifa are currently continuing with their programs.
Though people are "very shaken" by the violence and political unrest across the country, Chelsea Feuchs '14 said she feels safe and that daily university life has gone on fairly normally. Recent airstrikes have not been targeted at Haifa.
"One of the things about coming to a region that experiences threat as frequently as Israel does is that their government and their universities are really, really well-equipped to handle student security as well as general national security," she said. Feuchs decided to study abroad at University of Haifa because she wants to work as a "Jewish professional, possibly as a rabbi" in the future, she said. "Israel was the place, and the only place, to do that."
Some aspects of daily life are much affected by the country's turmoil, she said. Because local Israelis have been called to the reserves — Israel's army is made up of civilians — Feuchs said it has been difficult "to have some of your best friends on campus one day and potentially in danger the next." Haifa, where Feuchs is directly enrolled, has made it clear there is no need to evacuate at present. Feuchs said Haifa has emphasized its commitment to international students spending a semester in their program and that "they will follow through on that promise."
Haifa is also taking necessary precautions and security measures and constantly monitoring the situation, she said. Haifa and other host universities have been communicating regularly with Israeli security authorities, who act according to advisements from the Israel Defense Forces, Brostuen previously told The Herald. Feuchs said she contacted the OIP when the potential to evacuate arose and communication between Brown and Haifa has exceeded what she has seen herself.
"There's reason to stay aware and reason to stay concerned, but not reason to completely alter your life," Feuchs said. Students at Ben Gurion University were recently evacuated from Beersheba, she said.
The majority of information comes from the University of Haifa, she said, but Haifa is in ongoing contact with the OIP. If Brown determined it was no longer safe to stay in the country, she said she would listen to their recommendation.
She said her experience studying in Israel has allowed her to "understand the Israeli mindset and way of life more than I ever expected" since "conflict and threat and war is unfortunately a pretty frequent part of life in Israel."
Seeing how people cope with the unrest and continue to carry on their everyday lives has given her an immersive experience, she said, adding that "I don't feel that the conflict or the threat has detracted at all from that."
A New York University program in Tel Aviv has been suspended and students were evacuated to London Sunday, according to a Nov. 20 InsideHigherEd article.
Participating students were given the option of finishing the semester at NYU or one of several centers in London, Prague or Florence, according to the article.
While the students were determined not to be in "proximate or imminent danger," NYU "wanted to avoid a situation" where students would face challenges getting home later in the semester, wrote John Beckman, a NYU spokesman, in an email to InsideHigherEd.
Tunisia to Toulouse
A demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia earlier this fall resulted in the evacuation of two Brown students who were taking part in an approved alternative program offered by the School for International Training. After subsequent violence from the protests prompted the state department to place Tunisia on the travel warning list, the program was moved to Toulouse, France, where the students are now finishing out the remainder of the semester.
Forman said the original goal was to return to Tunisia after two weeks, but "early in October, the program decided it that it was still too risky to go back."
Forman said she was never in direct danger since the violence was not in the university's immediate surroundings. Several students in the program left some of their belongings in Tunisia because they initially were told that their move to Toulouse was only temporary. Despite this and other minor inconveniences, Forman said the transition was relaxed and normal.
"Brown was ridiculously supportive and really, really helpful," she said. The director of the program in Tunisia also accompanied the students to Toulouse and will remain there for the duration of the program, and one of the professors came to France to give a week of lectures he was scheduled to offer before the program was moved. Once the students settled into Toulouse, Forman said the program's facilitators "really tried to stay with some of the themes that we were supposed to be learning in Tunisia."
While Forman needed to change some of her original plans, such as studying French instead of Arabic upon getting to Toulouse, she said she is still getting a valuable study abroad experience. France has a large Tunisian population, which has allowed her to get a different perspective on Tunisian life and immigration, she said.
"It's made me incredibly grateful for the open curriculum that has gotten me to this point," Forman said, adding that Brown teaches "this sense of flexibility and that it's okay to take lessons from one experience and use them for another."
In an effort to make up for the program's unexpected change of locations, the OIP is providing travel grants to support an independent research project that the Brown students will carry out in Morocco after they finish their time in Toulouse.
"We were able to come up with a creative solution for students to engage in some way with North Africa," Brostuen said.
The last two years have yielded what seems to be a high number of natural disasters and displays of political unrest that have affected students abroad. At the end of January 2011, two Brown students were evacuated from Alexandria, Egypt where they had been studying abroad through a Brown-approved alternate program offered by Middlebury College. The evacuations followed the continued protests surrounding the administration of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Because Middlebury made the decision to evacuate the students near the beginning of the semester, Brown gave the two students the option of returning to campus for the remainder of the spring term.
"That's how we were able to make the best of a difficult situation," Brostuen said.
For the students, though, returning to campus after being evacuated was not ultimately the most feasible option. After a lot of thought, Amanda Labora '13 ended up deciding to take a leave of absence upon returning from Egypt. "I think that those around me, including myself, underestimated the emotional impact of that experience," she said. "We did witness a lot of violence, and it was kind of a shocking thing to go through ... and I don't think I was even ready to process the experience at the time I came back," she added.
Labora said she appreciated how much Brostuen and her professors and deans supported her throughout the process of getting home safely. Looking back, though, she said she wishes someone had followed up on how she was handling her experience personally.
"At the time, I honestly didn't realize the impact that it had had on me," she said. While the Office of Residential Life found an available dorm room and professors opened up spots in their courses for her, Labora said it was "ultimately my choice to take a leave because I found it too difficult in the circumstance."
"I had these questions and nobody really knew the answer because this kind of thing hadn't happened before," she said. Losing control over the situation and having her expectations suddenly change was "disconcerting," she added.
"It's really easy to assume that because everything turned out well, it was going to turn out well, and that wasn't necessarily the case," she said.
After deciding not to return to Brown right away, Labora worked at an emergency room in Providence last April and is now continuing her courses on campus with plans to graduate this May.