Traveling: freedom, adventure, and jealous friends back home. Many college students, including those in Claremont, dream of studying in different countries and immersing themselves in new cultures. In fact, 52 percent of Pomona students and 66 percent of Pitzer students choose to study abroad.
However, traveling to a new and unknown country has the potential to incite fear. Horror stories of sexual harassment, kidnappings and bombings involving students traveling abroad are hard to ignore. But, is this fear of danger when abroad justified and what can a student do to combat it?
Max Houtzager PO ‘16 took a gap year before coming to college. Houtzager traveled to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in hopes of continuing with his mountain biking and gain new experiences. He did not travel on an organized program and planned the trip himself, a risk most prospective study abroad students would not take. For example, while living in Canada, Houtzager shared a house with strangers he found on craigslist.com, a definite risk.
“I was 18 at the time and [my roommates] were between 20 and 32,” he said. However,
Houtzager shrugged off any feelings of discomfort. It is also possible, that Houtzager was simply very lucky to end up with friendly roommates.
After Canada, Houtzager flew to Australia. There, he stayed with a fellow mountain biker he had previously met in Lake Tahoe. While racing his bike in Australia, he spent time with the kids who lived nearby.
“One 17-year-old had already spent two years of his life in jail over three different occasions, escaping twice. I never felt threatened since everyone was more interested to be my friend,” said Houtzager.
While a community cannot be determined safe or unsafe based on the actions of some citizens, Australia does have a troubled history of teenage violence and Houtzager bravely entered an unknown country with fact in mind.
“Basic common sense and confidence seemed to be all I needed. The closest calls I had were with cars while on my bike.”
Gap years spent abroad immediately after high school are usually the riskiest traveling a student can undertake. Students are younger and less experienced at travel during their pre-college years. With many students now traveling abroad during their junior year of college a significant difference arises between an 18-year-old traveling in an unknown country and a 21-year-old who often has prior knowledge or educational reasons for traveling to that location.
Therefore, it is very commendable for a student who chooses to travel for recreational activities, new experiences or humanitarian opportunities without the collegiate educational background.
Anna Kramer PO ‘16 also took a gap year before coming to college, traveling to India on an International Rotary Youth Exchange.
Kramer lived In the state of Gujarat in western India, a place she felt was a relatively safe part of India. However, when Kramer traveled to other regions, she felt significantly less safe.
“The different economic groups, and the different attitudes of treatment of women do vary,” she said. “I couldn’t wear anything shorter than my knees, and at least a short sleeved shirt. Nothing more revealing than that, it would promote more harassment.”
Kramer admitted that being in large crowds was the most dangerous.
“Both of the times when I was assaulted was when I was in the thick of the crowd,” Kramer said.
To prospective women travelers in countries that have a history of female oppression, Kramer emphasized common sense.
“Use your head, listen to your host family or whatever support network you’re going with, talk to people who have been [to the country you’re going to] or lived there, try to establish connections…know the language,” said Kramer.
There are constant references to increased violence worldwide. For instance, just last year, the intensification of the drug war in Mexico prompted many universities across the country to cancel their study abroad programs in the more dangerous areas of the country. At least from the lens of the national media, it would appear that the world is becoming more treacherous for travelers. However, the numbers of students traveling abroad is consistently on the rise. It would appear that students desire for adventure, new experiences, and new educational opportunities continues to be undeterred.
Both Houtzager and Kramer took risks when traveling abroad, but they both were glad they had the experience. For these two students luckily, the benefits of traveling abroad outweighed the potential dangers or bad experiences.