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Study Abroad Must ‘Prepare for the Worst’ on Sex Harassment

This month CNN published online a blog post by a student from the University of Chicago that described the sexual harassment she faced while studying abroad in India for three months. Her story reportedly received more than 800,000 page views and attention from the news media in India, where there’s been a national debate about gender discrimination.

It also raised questions about the role colleges play in preparing students for overseas travel. In a statement to CNN, the University of Chicago said it “offers extensive support and advice to students before, during, and after their trips abroad, and we are constantly assessing and updating that preparation in light of events and our students’ experiences.”

In the following article, Mandy Reinig, director of international education at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, responds to the concerns raised by the student’s experience and offers advice on what colleges should do to prevent such problems.
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After reading the student’s account of her harassment in India, I was struck by several things. The first thing was that I had spent time in India recently and had not experienced anything near to what this student was talking about. Granted, I was there for only two weeks, but given how pervasive this student says harassment is there, I would think I would have experienced some sort of harassment.

The second thing I noticed is that there was no mention of this student’s bringing any of the incidents to the attention of the staff members in India who run the program or administrators at her university back home.

I don’t wish to lay blame on the home institution or the student for what happened; however, what I do wish to do is use this as a means to indicate what colleges and international educators need to do to prepare students for travel to countries where gender relations are not as they are in the United States.

St. Mary’s sends students on programs to places where gender boundaries and relationships are different than they are at home. Americans, particularly women, can be seen as promiscuous, while such seemingly innocuous signs of affection as hand holding between members of opposite sexes can be taboo. In addition, homosexuality in some places is actually illegal. All of those concepts can be hard for American college students to understand, especially when they attend colleges where freedom of expression is lauded.

How then do we as international educators prepare students to face such drastic changes in their environment? For me, it comes down to a few basic steps:

• It’s obvious, but we need to educate students about where they are going, the host culture, and dos and don’ts. To drive home the lessons, we should require students to do some of the research themselves.

• We should provide examples of what the gender and relationship differences are really like. When possible, having students who have already studied abroad share their own advice and experiences is best.

• Colleges should conduct role-playing exercises that take students out of their comfort zone and place them into scenarios that reflect their host culture.

• International educators should teach them whom to report abuse/harassment to, and what appropriate steps they should take.

• We should continually provide reminders about those gender and relationship differences throughout the course of the program to prevent complacency.

St. Mary’s has found that students tend to become complacent about five or six weeks into an overseas program, and they tend to relax more, which is good in some ways but bad in others. It becomes bad because they tend to believe that things can’t happen to them because now they understand the culture. However, that is when things do happen to them because they are no longer aware of their surroundings and forget that they are still the foreigner in a foreign land.

This is why international educators must continually remind students of not only the differences in gender roles and relationships but also the need to be aware of their surroundings. Students must remember that while it is wonderful that they are beginning to understand and respect their host culture, many will still see them solely as foreigners and will try to take advantage of them.

The other piece that international educators need to have in place is a great emergency action plan. While no one wants anything bad to happen to their students, it probably still will, no matter how much you prepare them or how often you remind them. However, having the right team and services in place can go a long way toward making the aftereffects of such incidents less memorable.

This means making the right connections on the campus. For example, do you know what services your counseling center can provide even to students overseas? Do you know if you have mental-health coverage on your student international health plan? Which administrators would you call if one of your students was date-raped? Can you answer all of those questions right now? If not, then you need to work on your emergency plan.

Preparation is key, but so are the care and attention given to an incident after it occurs. For example, St. Mary’s has started a counseling group for students who have just returned from study abroad to help them adjust back to college life. The group usually discusses topics related to academics but also may talk about what students experienced in terms of gender differences.

International educators cannot send students overseas thinking that nothing bad will ever happen. We need to prepare for the worst, through predeparture orientations and emergency plans and training, so that when the worst does happen we can minimize its effects. Our goal is always to have our students return in the same condition we sent them out. But it is up to us to ensure the highest probability that this will happen.

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