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Keeping an eye on students traveling abroad

Global Safety and Security director discusses risks of study abroad

Photo courtesy of Alexis Santí. Music courtesy of Kevin MacLeod and Incompetech.

The following is the transcript of a podcast with Julie Anne Friend, director of Northwestern’s Office of Global Safety and Security. She discusses the rise in terror attacks abroad and why terror still isn’t her biggest concern for study abroad students’ safety. 

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This is a Northwestern News podcast. Right now, we’re talking about the spike in terror attacks around the world and how it’s affecting study abroad programs for Northwestern students.

Friend: Most parents will call me, and they’ll ask me about terrorism. I will always answer their questions because that’s what on their minds, but if I have the opportunity to turn the conversation around, I will say that terrorism doesn’t keep me awake at night.

That’s Julie Anne Friend. She’s the top person in charge of student safety abroad.

Friend: I’m the director of the Office of Global Safety and Security at Northwestern University.

We’re coming up on the busiest time of the year for her. More than half of Northwestern’s study abroad students participate during fall quarter. With at least five terror attacks abroad this year alone, Julie has to be worried. Right?

Friend: In the back of my mind, am I scared? Absolutely. I’m terrified I have to make the worst phone call of my life.

But terror isn’t Julie’s biggest fear, so what are her biggest concerns?

Friend: The number one cause of death for students overseas is an automobile accident. The second-most-common cause of death is drowning.

She worries about whether students will look the wrong way when crossing the street in a country where they drive on the other side of the road or that they’ll get caught in a rip tide when they’re not used to swimming in the ocean.

Friend: Those are the things that keep me awake at night, and it always seems to surprise parents when I talk about those things. I think it surprises students, too.

Each year, roughly 800 Northwestern students spread out to more than 50 countries across the globe. The top picks are England, France, Spain, China and South Africa. Before they start their travels, each student has to complete an online training course that covers everything from “Don’t drink the water in Mexico” to what to do in the wake of a terror attack.

Friend: We’ve had students in Munich and in Nice and in Istanbul this summer. There were security incidents that occurred in all three of those locations. In the back of my mind, am I scared? Absolutely, but you can’t let that hold you back.

Taking you back to one of the worst incidents during Julie’s time at Northwestern – in November 2015, terrorists launched a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. At least 130 people were killed at a soccer stadium, a concert hall and at multiple restaurants and bars. There were 82 Northwestern students studying abroad in Paris at the time.

Friend: That incident occurred on a Friday night, and those incidents occurred in locations where it was reasonable for us to think that we might have students at risk. It was absolutely a stressful experience, but you just become a machine. You just know what you need to do.

Julie was actually at a hair salon when the attacks happened.

Friend: I was in a position of not being able to leave very quickly, so the salon gave me access to their Wi-Fi.

She was sending emails and making phone calls.

Friend: Everyone was invested that was in the salon. They were asking, ‘Did you find everybody?’ ‘Was that another person?’ When I left, they all yelled at me out the door. They were like, ‘Call us tomorrow, and let us know that everybody is ok.’

At the hair salon, and then at home, Julie was working furiously to track down all the Northwestern students.

Friend: The initial alert came in at 3:15 p.m.

It took a while to confirm what was happening, but within 45 minutes, they had sent messages to students asking them to check in.

Friend: We were able to confirm all but nine students by 8:30 p.m.

For the remaining nine, Julie called their parents.

Friend: I have a careful way of phrasing these questions, because I don’t want to panic a parent. I introduce myself and say, ‘I’m just calling to make sure your son or daughter has checked in with you following the events.’ Thankfully, in every case, the parents would say, 'Yes, yes. I heard from them right away. Of course, they knew I would be worried.’ Then I confess, and I say, ‘I’m so glad to hear that because the reason I’m calling you is because they haven’t checked in with us yet.'

By 9:15 p.m., all undergraduate students were safe and accounted for. The 11 graduate students who were abroad also all checked in overnight.

Friend: In the end, you just break down and cry at some point. It’s just that you’ve taken so much from other people, and you just have to let it out. Yoga helps.

All this time, Northwestern was sending regular updates to parents, letting them know what the University was doing to confirm their kids were ok, telling them what kinds of resources and counseling would be available to students. Only two decided to come home early.

With these attacks becoming more and more frequent, you have to wonder, is there a point when the risk becomes too great? A point where Northwestern decides to bring students home? Answering that question is one of the basic responsibilities of Julie’s job.

Friend: We do have what we call an established list of tripwires for program re-review as well as a list of tripwires for immediate evacuation.

Some of those tripwires include warnings from the Department of State — whether or not they’ve issued travel warnings for those countries, or if they’re pulling employees out of the embassies. Julie says one of the biggest factors is whether classes are still being held at the host institution.

Friend: How long are you going to let your students sit around and not go to class? Then that leads to other opportunities for trouble, as far as I’m concerned. There needs to be demands on their time.

Northwestern did shut a program down once in Julie’s time, during the second uprising in Egypt. It actually only affected one student. The bulk of the study abroad classes had already wrapped up, and this one student was there doing an independent project.

Julie says safety isn’t really the biggest issue abroad. Last year, about 10 percent of Northwestern students reported incidents. Incidents can be something as minor as losing a wallet or needing to go to the doctor for antibiotics. In fact, more than half of the reported incidents are health-related.

Friend: This is where I feel a lot of what my job is is to dispel the myth that the study abroad experience isn’t safe. Most of the time, if our students have trouble, it’s related to a health-care need.

Luckily, there’s a big support system in place for medical issues.

Friend: Our assistance provider has affiliations with hospitals and clinics and doctors and facilities in all the places we send students.

Students can get health insurance through the University, and insurance representatives will help students set up appointments with English-speaking doctors.

Friend: The idea is to get students in early for care, so that they can avoid having a medical emergency.

Outside of medical needs, the issues Julie’s office hears about are pretty typical of what college students deal with at home.

Friend: The overconsumption of alcohol, as one could expect. People also get stuff stolen at the beach, because they leave their stuff and go in the water. All the things they learn here on campus, about taking care of themselves, apply abroad.

No matter what happens, Julie’s office is there to help answer questions and provide resources. Visit the Global Safety and Security website for more information.

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