Our health and safety team has been off to a busy start this semester. Natural disasters, terrorism, and political disruptions and protests already this semester have required communicating to students, parents and advisors. Has our 24 hour news cycle and ability to know with the buzz of our phones that something has happened made study abroad more difficult? From the perspective of an institution operating programs overseas I would answer unequivocally yes. The number of hours spent crafting carefully worded statements that present a balanced and accurate response, the staff time setting up systems that allow students to efficiently check-in when an event takes place somewhere they are studying or where they may be traveling, and the time we spend discussing when we should do any of these things takes away from our ability to support student learning and wellness.
I would like to use the recent vote in Catalonia as one example of this, but I could also write about terrorist attacks in London or Hurricane Irma in Cuba. Catalonian independence is not a new movement, tracing its history back almost 80 years and the outcome of the unofficial referendum on independence was not a surprise to most political observers. Dr Jaume Gelabert, our Director in Barcelona provides an interesting insight from the perspective of a Catalonian who is witnessing events first-hand in his blog. My most important take-away from Jaume’s blog was that this was a great teachable moment where we could engage students in a thoughtful dialogue more than it was a threat in any way to their safety or the program.
Jaume held a special lecture for the students to put the events into context and he appreciated the students’ enthusiasm for wanting to understand at a much deeper level. Aren’t understanding those nuances the reason we are sending students abroad? Would it be better for us, as educators, to spend more time on that and less time tracking down students and notifying parents and advisors that everyone is safe? I’m aging myself here, but I remember studying in Germany and how keen I was to discuss the Berlin Wall and the divide between East and West and whether Germans ever thought in their lifetime they would be reunified. The resounding sentiment was no it wouldn’t happen in anyone’s lifetime, but two years later it did happen. I only wish I had studied abroad while the wall was falling so I could have had those conversations then. As educators, have we lost our emphasis on encouraging dialogue and do we need to find a way to shift our focus back to encouraging student exploration and reflection?