Fordham sends 37 percent of students abroad at some point during their ungraduate careers. For many, study abroad offers an opportunity to be exposed to and learn in a new environment. After a semester or a year-long program, students come back with a greater understanding of other cultures, speak new languages and gain experiences outside of Fordham’s classrooms.
These Fordham students share this experience with 283,332 other American students abroad annually according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report.
Study abroad poses many challenges for students, including language and cultural barriers, and forces them to adjust to a new set of norms in a new location.
“There was definitely an adjustment period at first, and I have learned to expect the unexpected most of the time,” said Nora Gutekanst, FCRH ’16, who is spending the semester in Rabat, Morocco. “I am still learning the language and there are cultural
differences between myself and my host family.”
However, while adjusting to a new surrounding is common among most students studying in a different country, other students are faced with an entirely different obstacle. It is possible that students will find themselves in areas of ongoing conflicts and both domestic and international disputes. Particularly in volatile regions of the world, the focus of an experience abroad shifts as students find themselves studying in the middle of a war zone.
Gutekanst was worried before her arrival in Morocco about the unrest in neighboring countries and conflict within the Middle East Northern African (MENA) region. “I was anxious about what to expect and what would unfold in the region throughout the semester,” she said. “And if that could in anyway affect my time in Morocco.”
“Fordham University’s study abroad office monitors safety and security situations worldwide with the support of the United States Department of State Bureau of Overseas Security Advisory Council,” said Joseph Rienti, the director of the international and study abroad programs (ISAP). “We also remain in contact with all of our host institutions to closely monitor safety situations on-site.”
Although every incident requires a different response, ISAP has many guidelines in place for students abroad in areas of turmoil and stability. On the website, ISAP shares guidelines with family members, including the establishment of a communication plan, routine contact and contact with the local program staff.
The website also says that the evacuation of students is very rare and would not occur unless recommended or required by either U.S. Embassy or the State Department.
“My parents were more concerned about the issues than I was, which is a general theme with most students studying here,” said Mostafa Elmadboly, FCRH ’16, who is abroad in Amman, Jordan. “That said, it never hurts to know the context you’re travelling in.”
Prior to departure, ISAP encourages students to register with the US State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which provides up-to-date information. “Students receive information about security and how to conduct themselves should a local or international crisis occur,” Rienti said.
Several Fordham students abroad in Jordan found themselves in this exact situation in early February.
On Feb. 2, the Islamic fundamentalist group based in Syria, ISIS, released a video of a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive. Jordan, a country nestled between Israel and the Arab world, has remained stable throughout many of the devastating conflicts that have bombard the Middle East. The release of the video was met with backlash from Jordanian citizens and ultimately, the decision of the reigning monarch King Abdullah II to attack ISIS in Syria.
Elmadboly was in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, when these events unfolded. His peers and he were advised about the situation, but the future was unclear for the region.
ISAP reached out to students in the area. “I received an email pretty much repeating the same information we’d gotten from the embassy and from program staff,” said Elmadboly.
The local program took action for the safety of students, as tensions increased in Jordan following the attack. “Classes were canceled the day after we learned about the pilot’s death,” said Elmadboly. “There was an increased security presence in the days after.”
Students were also advised to stay alert, keep a low profile, avoid protests and keep up-to-date with the news.
In its college student section, USA Today published an article on July 22, 2014 about students abroad in Israel amid the latest Israel-Gaza conflict. Violence between Israel and Gaza military groups, specifically Hamas, intensified this summer after three young Israeli students were kidnapped and murdered.
On July 2, a Palestinian man was killed in Jerusalem in response to the event provoking Hamas to launch about 1,500 rockets in Israel who struck more than 2,000 targets in Gaza. The article titled “Israel-Gaza conflict impacts American study abroad students,” chronicled the experiences of several American students abroad in Israel last summer at the time of the attacks.
Jessica Tannenbaum, a junior at Georgetown, had been in Israel for three weeks before the attack. She was surprised at how accustomed both Israeli and Palestinians had grown to the violence. “I learned how to cope in this new reality by observing everyone around me,” she wrote in her blog. “In the face of the escalating conflict, life here in Jerusalem, besides the occasional security cautions, carries on as usual.”
Students outside of war zones can still feel the effects of conflict in neighboring countries. “Students from Ukraine are coming to my program in Warsaw and having to withdraw before completing to go home and help their family and their country,” said Alexandra Leen, FCRH ’16, is abroad in Warsaw, Poland. “I’m not sure if they have many study abroad programs running right now, especially in the more volatile areas like Kiev, Donetsk, etc.”
Gutenkanst also feels the effect of Middle Eastern conflict such as the crisis in Syria. “I have learned that there are problems with sub-saharan migrants and also the number Syrian refugees entering Morocco looking for sanctuary here,” she said. “Sadly, I have even seen a few Syrian refugees on the streets in Rabat asking for help.”
In general, Fordham ISAP takes many steps to ensure the safety of students abroad. Due to ongoing conflict in the MENA region, many areas and countries are off-limits. “There are a fair amount of places we’re not allowed to travel to,” said Elmadboly. “Northern and Eastern Jordan is off-limits, and we can’t leave the country for Iraq and Syria, obviously.”
Although Gutekanst was isolated from the events in Jordan, the environment of Morocco is still dominated by conflict in Northern Africa. The closed border between Algeria and Morocco makes travel to other countries in North Africa difficult. “The border is essentially closed because of conflicts [over the Western Sahara] between the two nations,” said Gutekanst. “It is officially closed but many people do find illegal ways to enter.”
Even students studying abroad in stable regions can find themselves amid conflict. Writing in The Fordham Ram, a student traveling abroad documented her experience in Paris following the terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“The attacks against Charlie Hebdo specifically were aimed at the press, and the more I spoke with French people about the attacks, the more I understood the broader consequences of the assault on the nation,” the student, Elizabeth Zanghi, FCRH ’15, wrote. While Zanghi was not associated with an academic program during the shooting, upon returning to her study abroad destination, she was in the middle of an event that received international attention.
Despite the hostile and tumultuous environment of the MENA region, both Gutekanst and Elmadboly have made the most of their experiences abroad. “My experience has been great,” said Elmadboly. “Amman is a great city, and Jordanians are extraordinarily friendly.”
“Before coming here I heard of the phrase ‘Moroccan Hospitality,’” Gutenkanst said. “I have this to be for the most part very true, especially in regards to my host family who are great people.”