Being Aware: Staying Safe as a Female American Student Studying Abroad

Image courtesy of The Office of Multicultural and Global Education

Image courtesy of The Office of Multicultural and Global Education

Picture this.  You’ve just arrived to your abroad destination, and it is everything and more than you thought it would be. The parties, clubs and pubs paired with new friends, cute foreign boys, and the never-ending flow of alcohol in a different country is like nothing you have ever experienced before.

Never in a million years did you think that you would get the opportunity to be abroad, let alone meet all these amazing people and travel to all these different places.  The attention from all the locals, especially the boys, is exciting, yet overwhelming at times.

The extremely attractive guy you have been flirting with the whole night at the pub offers to buy you a drink.  You accept, thinking nothing of it.  He buys you a pint of Guinness; you start drinking it and continue to flirt.

Fast-forward to 2 hours later.  You are in a dark room, on someone’s bed.  Your head is spinning, and you have no memory of how you got there.  You have no idea where any of your belongings are, and are utterly confused and horrified by the guy sleeping next to you on the bed.  Panic and fear fills your body, and you start asking yourself a million questions.  What did I have to drink last night?  But I thought I didn’t drink that much?!  Where are my friends? Who is this guy?  Where am I?

This may seem a little extreme, but the possibility of it happening, especially as an American female student studying abroad, is very real.

“We want our students to be aware of all the possibilities that could happen when you are abroad.  It is not meant to scare you in anyway, but students need to hear of these things, because, you know, they have happened before,” said Mark Tortora, the assistant director for education abroad programs at Quinnipiac’s Office of Multicultural and Global Education.

study abroad portal

Studying abroad is on the rise more than ever.  Safety has become a huge issue in itself because more students are going abroad, thus increasing the risk that bad things could happen.  The amount of study abroad programs across the country have also increased, and many are in “non traditional” sites.  Many of these programs also no longer fit the “junior year abroad” model with its high levels of structure and supervision.  These reasons have all contributed to the uptick in safety and security issues among American students while they are abroad.

“All of these reasons definitely have an impact on how we educate our students to be safe in foreign countries,” said Tortora.  “Especially the girls.  American females have to look out for themselves a lot more than guys.  It’s not singling them out or anything, it’s the truth.”

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According to a study conducted by Middlebury College, it found that female college students who study abroad are four times more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact, like inappropriate touching; three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault attempts, and five times more likely to have been raped.  The study found that the offenders were not other college students, but local citizens in the countries where the American students were studying abroad.

“I studied abroad in London, and I felt safe there, but there was an incident when I went on a trip to Oxford to visit one of my friends who was studying there,” said Hilary Groatman, a senior advertising major at the University of Oklahoma.  “It was crazy. I got drugged by one of the guys that we went out with.  Luckily, I was with my friends and they took care of me, but it was definitely one of the scariest experiences of my life.”

Many students, especially females, are not as aware of the possibility of these situations, even though they happen more often than not.

“I think a common reason as to why American female students become a target is because some countries view the girls as “easy,” said Andrea Hogan, the director of global education at Quinnipiac’s Office of Multicultural and Global Education. 

“There are also cultural differences as well.  Men in some countries perceive eye contact or a smile as a sign that it is okay to make sexual advances towards a female, where, in our culture, it is considered to be a polite way of acknowledging someone.”

Education and awareness are ways to prevent these incidents from happening in general, not just with females.  As a foreigner, it is important to familiarize yourself with the laws and customs of the country you’re in.

“My advice? I would say to definitely research the culture and customs for the different countries you’ll be traveling to.  And definitely be mindful of your behavior, like going home with people you just met, taking drinks from strangers, and always being with a group of people you know,” said Tortora.

Alcohol consumption and drugs are also a main concern for American students going abroad.  Many incidents have happened abroad involving American students getting into trouble because of alcohol or drug-related incidents.

health storify screenshot

“We always tell our students to be cautious of how much they drink, and to really know the culture of the country they are going to,” said Hogan.  “We always advise students to be careful of what they do while they’re abroad regarding alcohol and drug policies.  Once they’re in a different country and if something happens, it’s out of our hands.”

Image courtesy of the British Beer Company

Image courtesy of the British Beer Company

Most laws involving alcohol consumption in foreign countries, especially in Europe are less strict than they are in the United States.  The legal age to drink in most countries in Europe is 18, which could lead to American students going too far just to have a little fun.

 “I remember one of the first days I was in Ireland, we met some locals at a pub and tried to keep up with them,” said Sarah Faidell, who studied abroad in Cork last semester.  “It was such a bad call on our part.  We ended up paying the price for it the next day.”

 Foreign countries are especially strict when it comes to illegal drugs.  According to the Office of Multicultural and Global Education and the Department of State, students who have a prescription for medication must get a note from a doctor explaining the medication, what it is for, the dosage, etc.

 Some drugs that are allowed in the United States are considered illegal in other countries.  A list of what is/is not allowed in foreign countries are listed on the embassy websites.

 “It’s all about being smart.  There haven’t been any major incidents with any of our students abroad, thank God, but students need to know that being in Italy isn’t the same as being in America,” said Hogan. “Everything- laws, culture, people, places are all different.”


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