Staying Safe and Healthy
Smart Travel Enrollment Program (STEP)
We strongly recommend that all U.S. Citizens studying abroad—regardless of the length of the program—register with the Smart Travel Enrollment Program. Travel registration is a free service provided by the U.S. government to U.S. citizens who are traveling to, or living in, a foreign country. Registration allows you to record information about your upcoming trip abroad that the Department of State will use to assist you in case of an emergency. Registration can be completed before you leave the U.S. at the Department of State website:
No matter how safe your campus and community appear to be, you should acquaint yourself with your environment by reading the traveler’s advisories and other safety information posted at the State Department website (travel.state.gov) and the information your host institution should provide you when you arrive on-site. Also, take the time to research the common laws of your host country if at all possible. Begin by orienting yourself like this once you arrive at your host institution:
- Familiarize yourself with your neighborhood and campus by walking around in the daylight.
- Ask fellow students and staff members about areas you should avoid at night.
- Never walk alone at night.
- Note the address and the telephone number of the nearest embassy or consulate.
- Locate the police station that serves your neighborhood.
- Locate the nearest fire alarm box and learn how to report a fire.
- Identify the hospital emergency room nearest to your home and know what to do in case of an accident.
- Keep emergency numbers near your phone at home. Check to see if your host country has a similar “911” system.
In short, be cautious but not fearful. You must learn to walk the fine line between safety and paranoia. Exercise the same precautions that you would in any U.S. city; in unfamiliar surroundings you may not know the real concerns. Never carry large amounts of cash. Use money belts or a concealed purse for your passport, visa, money, credit cards and other documents. Don’t leave your luggage alone, even outside the stall in a restroom. And, despite the popular mythology surrounding it, hitchhiking is not recommended.
Keep In Contact With Home
Your parents and friends will have concerns while you are away. Please keep in contact with them on a regular basis and let them know how you are. If you tell someone that you will call at a certain time, make every attempt to make that call, otherwise people may worry needlessly. If you plan to travel during holidays, leave your itinerary with your friends, roommate or your host family.
Stay well informed about local and regional conditions. Read newspapers with good international coverage and analysis of local problems and issues. Many of the major U.S. papers with good international coverage are available online if you have computer access. This is another good way to stay informed. In addition, your on-site advisor, program director, or point of contact will be able to best tell you about local issues and address your concerns or questions. Check out:
Some countries experience natural disasters that you may not have encountered in the past, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornados or hurricanes. If any of these commonly occur in your program location, check with your director or international office to determine what safety procedures should be followed in case of natural disaster, and if there are any advance warning signals. If a natural disaster should occur, please contact your program director at your host institution, as well as USI Center for International Programs as soon as you are able to do so to let us know you are safe. Please make sure to keep our emergency contact information close at hand. Everyone involved with your program will be closely monitoring the situation to determine the best course of action. The U.S. Embassy in your host country may determine that the situation is no longer safe for American citizens and some form of follow up will occur.
Don’t Allow Yourself to Be Vulnerable
Do not frequent places that may make you vulnerable by association. Some restaurants or clubs have reputations for being American “hangouts”; avoid them if at all possible. Try not to wear clothing with college logos or other script/designs that will identify you as being American. Try to avoid military style clothing or U.S. military clothing. Avoid political groups, demonstrations, etc.
Be aware of your surroundings, including unknown individuals “hanging out” in your building or any strange activity nearby. Be suspicious of unexpected packages or letters with no return address and/or excessive postage, especially letters which appear to contain more than paper. Be careful of who has access to your room or apartment. Visitors should be screened; delivery persons should be asked for identification, and should not be left unsupervised. Walk away from trouble and take a passive approach to any volatile situation.
Take the same precautions you would at home. Do not give out your name or address to unknown people. Know where the nearest police station and hospital are and keep emergency numbers handy. Never go into unsafe or unknown areas alone or after dark.
Sexual Harassment and Study Abroad
Cultural differences in interactions on romantic or sexual levels can be a problem area: some behaviors might be very inappropriate in the U.S., but considered perfectly acceptable in the culture in which you are living, and vice-versa. Some of the new behaviors will be relatively easy to adjust to, but others pose more of a problem. Sexual harassment is a particularly difficult area because of the extreme variance in acceptable behavior between cultures. Combined with the different social and legal responses to such behavior, sexual harassment when abroad can be a difficult scenario to deal with; fortunately, there are ways to prevent or lesson the negative consequences.
Harassment normally falls into one of two categories; the first being when a person in a position of power or influence requests sexual favors, or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It often includes a trade relationship such as “you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.” This type of harassment is quite serious, and even one incident should be reported immediately.
The second category consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature directed toward a person because of her or his gender. This type of harassment usually takes place repeatedly over a period of time and creates an intimidating, hostile and offensive environment, plus may unreasonably interfere with a person’s academic performance. The most important thing to remember is to stay safe. If you do not feel safe in a particular situation, remove yourself or distance yourself from that situation immediately. Go to the in-country program director or foreign student advisor, or go stay with a friend you can trust. If the advisor or director cannot or will not help you, call your program office and CIP. Do not wait to contact someone in the hope that the situation will improve.
Maybe you can work things out, but do it with the assistance of the program director and someone in IPS. Until you know a place and a culture, you may be in danger of misjudging the situation. Listen to your instincts and think and act on the safe side, even if that may not be the most “exciting” side to be on. Most importantly, do not abuse alcohol while in a foreign culture; losing full use of your faculties can cause errors in judgment and other situations that may lead to unwanted sexual harassment or assault, or otherwise endanger your well-being.
Special Needs and Concerns
Traveling For Those with Physical Challenges
With adequate preparation and precautions, much of the world is accessible to the disabled traveler. Mobility International publishes a quarterly newsletter, “Over the Rainbow” and a booklet,“ A World of Options”, that provide useful information about both travel and study. Order them from: Mobility International 132 E. Broadway, Suite 343 Eugene, OR 97401 U.S.A.
Phone: 541-343-1284 (Tel/TTY)
Race and Ethnicity
Although you may think of race and ethnicity as universally defined, they are very much culturally determined. While abroad, you may find that you are an ethnic minority or majority for the first time in your life, or you may find that the ethnic identity you have always felt to be an integral part of yourself is viewed in a completely different way in your host country. If you are visiting a country where you have ethnic or racial roots, you may find you are expected to behave according to the host country norms in a way that other Americans of a different background are not. Or, you may find that you are considered an American first, and your ethnic or racial identity is considered unimportant.
In many countries, there are homegrown ethnic or racial conflicts, and you may find you are identified with one group or another because of your physical appearance, until people discover you are American. It is extremely unlikely that any of these situations will involve any threat of physical harm to you as an international student. However, by researching the situation of your host country, you can prepare yourself for situations you may encounter.
The AllAbroad.us website is a good resource for discussion on these issues. Look under “Discrimination Issues” and “Group-Specific Advice."
Adjusting to another culture can pose some challenges for interactions and relationships. Often what Americans perceive as appropriate behavior between the sexes, or acceptable gender roles, are not the same in other cultures. Take cues from natives of your host country to gauge what is appropriate. Overall, when evaluating the gender differences in your host country, both male and female students should keep an open mind and see these differences as an opportunity to gain insights into a new culture.
Female students in particular may find their behavior restricted. Because many cultures around the world have been exposed to images of the U.S. and American women in movies, TV shows, and advertising, foreign nationals sometimes make stereotypical assumptions about American women. Female students should be aware of how their dress, body language, and eye contact communicate to people in their host culture.
You may already identify yourself as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or you may still be exploring these issues. In any case, you may find that the social climate, laws, and personal interactions of your host culture differ from the U.S. Keep in mind that many of the ideas held in the U.S. about sexuality and sexual orientation are culturally-based and may be different in your host country. Consider carefully how your identity as a LGBT person may affect your relationships with host nationals, your cultural adjustment, and your overall education abroad experience.
In some cultures, Western understandings of “gay” and “straight” do not exist or do not carry the same importance; people in same-sex relationships may not see this behavior or orientation as an identity. In other cultures, there are active social movements for civil rights for sexual minorities. In preparing to study abroad, it is important for you to research the LGBT climate of the countries you will be visiting. Though the research might seem intimidating, it will help you to be better prepared to face the environment you will encounter abroad.
If you are open about your gender identity and/or sexual orientation, consider the following as you research potential study abroad countries:
- The culture of a country might make you feel like you are either “sent back into the closet” or, in countries that are more progressive than the U.S., freer to express yourself, which can be a shock as well.
- If your host country is NOT progressive or accepting of the LGBT community, make sure you evaluate what your motivation is if you plan on confronting this way of thinking. Just like other issues, it’s not your place to change a culture. Realize that confrontation or pushing an issue they are not ready for will obviously alter your interactions.
If you are not open about your gender identity and/or sexual orientation, along with the above, consider the following as you research potential study abroad countries:
- Some countries will make it easier for you to come out; make sure that you have a support network during this time.
- If you are not public with your identity or orientation, realize that finding that community will be a bit more difficult while abroad. Finding support groups or organizations before you go is essential – but get some feedback on these places. Don’t put yourself in the position of ending up in an unsafe environment because you didn’t do your research ahead of time.
Part of your pre-departure preparations should include reflecting on the larger context of acting on your LGBT identity while abroad. Here are some ideas for discussion:
- Does your right to be LGBT in the United States conflict with your host country’s religious or cultural values and traditions?
- How will you reconcile your human rights with the cultural values of your host society?
- Are there safety or legal considerations that you should be aware of?
- What are gender relations in the host culture?
- What is considered typical male and female social behavior in the host culture?
- What is the social perception of members of the LGBT community? How they are socially defined?
- What roles do transgendered people play in the host culture?
- What is the difference between sexuality and sensuality in the host culture?
The laws governing LGBT relationships and sexual activity differ from country to country. U.S. citizens must abide by the laws of a host country. Knowing these laws may help you to decide what countries you might like to visit, if you will be out abroad or if you will pursue relationships while abroad. Even if you do not plan to have a sexual relationship while away, you should be informed about specific laws pertaining to sexual behavior and sexual/gender orientation. You may find that you can be freer in your behavior than in the U.S., or that you need to hide your sexual orientation or gender identity completely to avoid cultural ostracism or arrest. Part of being abroad is acknowledging that you’ll need to adapt to the customs and comply with the laws, even if you disagree with them.
Trans and Traveling
Trans students traveling may want to take into account issues they could face while traveling. Specifically, trans people have found themselves to be discriminated against during security procedures in airports. New body scan procedures have raised concerns about outing people in transition. The laws governing medication brought into countries differ as well as how the medication may be prescribed. Some trans people have faced discrimination or been outed when presenting their identification to officials that do not match their displayed gender identity. A primer for these issues and suggestions from members of the trans community in combating discrimination while traveling are provided on the National Center for Transgender Equality site.
Other helpful websites: