Students should err on side of caution when traveling abroad

Illustration by Parker Wilhelm

Above the column you’re reading now, you’ll find one arguing that the dangers of foreign travel are overblown and that Americans need not be so guarded about venturing overseas. Without a doubt, I’ve met many Americans who need to hear this message. I’ve met many more, however, who need to hear the opposite. This is especially true of people in my generation.

I say this because the benefits of traveling to many places are outweighed by the potential costs. If you never visit them, you may miss out on some fulfilling experiences. If you do, however, you may come to grievous harm no matter how careful you might be. For that reason, I’ll be arguing for the negative position.

I imagine the positive case will be more pleasant to read, and that it might be tempting to favor it for this reason alone. I’d like to point out, then, that cynicism plays an important role. John Adams, for instance, said that he did not trust powerful rulers because “there is danger from all men.” We should be glad that Adams had this distrustful temperament; had it been otherwise, America might not be an independent nation.

Some of the most powerful stories of Americans being victimized abroad may be those involving Peace Corps volunteers. This is because when someone is victimized, the rest of us often tell ourselves that we could’ve avoided their misfortune had we been in the same situation. With Peace Corps volunteers, however, this becomes especially difficult to do.

For one, Peace Corps volunteers have training, a plan and a support network. They are not simply sauntering alone into an unknown place. Moreover, Peace Corps volunteers dedicate long periods of time to helping others. You’d be hard-pressed to accuse Peace Corps volunteers of provoking others by behaving like arrogant “ugly Americans.” Nonetheless, horrifying violence befalls them more than some would expect.

In a January 2011 ABC News report, Jess Smochek described her experiences as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh. “I was going to go and do something wonderful in a country that needed help,” she told ABC. Six weeks after Smochek arrived, however, she was dragged into an alley and repeatedly raped. The rapists’ comments to her seemed to imply that they targeted her because she is an American.

In the same segment, other former Peace Corps volunteers go on to describe similar experiences elsewhere, including places like Haiti and South Africa. In a form on the K-State study abroad website, Bangladesh, Haiti and South Africa are all listed as possible destinations. According to a March 5 Washington Post article, South Africa has been called “the world’s rape capital.”

My study abroad experience last semester was amazing, and I have no doubt that K-State takes every precaution to keep students in these and other nations secure. Yet, according to a May 10, 2011 New York Times article, over 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported being sexually assaulted between 2000 and 2009. These volunteers were given every reason to anticipate that they would be safe in their host countries. If even Peace Corps volunteers are harmed so often, we should be especially concerned for the safety of students traveling without a similar support network.

I recognize that the United States also has its dangers and that each of the countries mentioned above offers positive experiences the U.S. may not be able to provide. There is no doubt, however, that some nations have more turmoil than others. Ultimately, I’d rather those I care about not travel to places where they are at a heightened risk of being attacked.

On a final note, I’ve recently seen several people accused of victim-blaming for trying to warn others about dangerous situations. I’m certain that someone will manage to construe my column this way. Yet when I last visited home, my parents warned me about an intersection where several carjackings had taken place. I think most people would agree that my parents were looking out for my safety, not saying “you get what you deserve.”

My intention here is the same. You cannot make every place on Earth safe for Americans. You can, however, warn your friends and loved ones to err on the side of caution when leaving the country.

Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to