My (Study Abroad) Year of Living Dangerously

Istanbul, Turkey Image credit: violin / 123RF Stock Photo
Istanbul, Turkey
Image credit: violin / 123RF Stock Photo

Several years ago the front page story in British newspapers was of a student who returned home while his mother was planning his funeral.  His passport had been stolen while he was trekking in Asia.  The perpetrator subsequently died in an accident and the Embassy assumed that the passport name and thief were one and the same. The student had not thought to contact the Embassy or his parents and was oblivious to the fuss until he saw the faces of his unbelieving and very lucky family. Other families have not been so lucky as security has taken an ever more prominent seat in the study abroad world. No doubt one of the (unstated) reasons many Americans prefer study in English speaking countries like Australia, Ireland and the UK and why Europe has had the lion’s share of exchanges is the view that exoticism elsewhere is accompanied by danger.

Today foreign parents are coming to the conclusion that the United States is a dangerous place and that is a minor shock. Americans are not used to the idea that foreign parents and students seem to be weighing up security at top US colleges instead of trying their level best to get admitted.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that US colleges off the beaten track are beginning to attract interest from  parents in other countries seeking to avoid crime and terrorism.  If so, this is an unfortunate  support to the longstanding efforts of overseas  College Advisers to widen the range of  US institutions considered by foreign students and their families.

My study abroad year in Turkey was definitely wonderful and definitely dangerous. While I was there the Iranian Revolution began and Turkey came under pressure to negotiate over the invasion of Cyprus four years earlier. Was I at risk from these  events?  Yes, I suppose like every other American abroad, I was risking a situation where  resentment over US policy could have been translated into a personal attack. But I faced none of that.

My real danger was shared by every other person in Istanbul –  the danger of getting injured in one of the numerous bombings or getting caught in the crossfire of the virtual civil war in Turkey between left and right that lasted my entire year.  In addition to bombings there were also assassinations  notably that of a respected journalist. It shocked the country. College campuses were frequent bomb targets.  One morning when I did not have class I ran into a Turkish friend who was a student at another university.  He had come home early and visibly shaken as he told me  a bomb had gone off that morning and that a second bomb had been planted in a stairwell so students and faculty would be killed as they escaped. Luckily the second bomb did not explode. My university was spared probably because we were in the hills on the outskirts, but we did have a bomb threat forcing us to evacuate buildings. Our campus was small and I did not live on campus.  I was frequently out and about so  I could have been harmed at random.

Of  this my parents knew nothing as I am sure the American media did not cover it. And because the violence was only sporadic (though increasing) it did not occur to me that I should leave. I enjoyed Turkey very much. I loved learning the language. The people were kind and I had made friends among a wide variety of Turks from various religious and ethnic backgrounds giving me a wonderful perspective on the culture and politics. Had my parents known the dangers, they might have ordered me back and decided that the world outside of the US presented unacceptable risks for their daughter.

Dangerous study abroad experiences happen on every continent and they can do so at the drop of a hat. The daughter of a British friend was caught in the earthquakes in Christ Church, New Zealand which destroyed the school building along with much of the rest of the city.  No one wants to be in peril abroad and the one precaution I did take in Turkey was  never to take a known risk. If I heard something might be happening, I stayed home rather than venturing into the city.

Looking back, having survived unscathed I cannot regret having had a “dangerous year” abroad because it compressed and intensified two desirable consequences of the study abroad experience. I developed a tremendous affection and empathy for Turkish people and the experience made me mentally very tough. Empathy and mental toughness are essential qualities for living abroad (especially in difficult places) but they are also incredibly important qualities  in life.  I would not wish an earthquake or revolution on anyone abroad but if they happen to occur while you are there, they will make you strong.