UI officials on keeping students abroad safe

Taylor Wegner

By Taylor Wegner, Contributing Writer

BARCELONA — As tensions rise in Catalonia, University officials are advising students studying abroad to staying safe in an active political climate.

Political turmoil regarding Catalonian independence from Spain has marked the region for the past few years, but numerous events that have occurred during the program’s start — the October referendum, the arrests of Catalonian political officials, the Catalonian president’s declaration of independence — have exacerbated social and political unrest.

At the start of this semester, the Catalonian secessionist movement was in full swing in Barcelona, the region’s largest city and capital.

Illinois students received a security message from Andrew Collum on Sept. 21 warning that the opinions of outsiders, particularly Americans, regarding the Catalonia/Spain tension are neither appreciated nor wanted.

Amanda Rodriguez, junior in FAA, is currently studying abroad in Barcelona and said that though she had seen some startling images regarding the referendum, the aspects of the separatist movement that she has directly been exposed to have been quite mild.

“The demonstrations for and against Catalan independence have been largely peaceful and contained, so I’ve not been too worried,” Rodriguez said.

While Rodriguez has not been very concerned, the people closest to her have voiced their doubts.

“I have had friends and family reach out to me,” she said. “My grandmother called me after the referendum. She was worried about the violence from the Spanish police. I told her that the violence was only in small pockets near the city center, and told her I would stay clear of those areas.”

As added reassurance, the coordinators of the University’s study abroad programs have taken measures to keep Illinois students informed and prepared.

Collum and Erin DeLuca are the associate director and coordinator, respectively, of the International Safety and Security department, which is under the Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategy.

Collum said their focus “is the well-being of faculty, staff and students traveling abroad for University of Illinois-related reasons.”

There are a number of precautions Collum and his team take before students, faculty and staff leave to anticipate disruptions that may occur while a University member is in, or traveling to, another country.

“Before travelers depart, our routine tasks include preparing and delivering orientations to students and faculty, managing enrollment in the University-approved international health and travel insurance, reviewing travel to countries with a Department of State Travel Warning and monitoring global events related to University travelers,” Collum said. “We also coordinate policy and process affecting travel abroad. Once travelers are abroad, we provide 24-hour support in response to crises and emergencies for programs or individuals.”

There are also coordinators stationed directly in Barcelona.

Ryan Lorenz, the resident director of the Illinois program at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), has sent numerous memos about safety levels and measures that students should be taking. These messages range from warnings about when citywide or university strikes are going to take place to suggestions to avoid sites of public protest.

As Lorenz is located in Barcelona, he has been exposed to almost everything University students have been exposed to, which helps him determine any true concerns.

“Illinois counts on me to keep them apprised with my view from Barcelona. I obtain information through reading a variety of newspapers, watching the news, speaking with my team to learn what they know, speaking with Catalan colleagues and speaking with my Spanish wife,” Lorenz said. “My children also share what they hear and know. The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona sends me every advisory/warning they produce.”

Lorenz then informs Illinois students at UPF and members of his team about the current tensions as well as the impact these tensions may have on Illinois students. Similarly, the coordinators back at Illinois act as important sources of information on the Catalonian political climate and consequent safety levels.

Collum said once a crisis starts to take place, they consult programs in Barcelona, read notices from government and private security practitioners and “seek insight from (our) University faculty and staff with experience in the country or region. These sources of information are pulled together to understand the potential risk and how to mitigate it.”

Ultimately, though, the consensus has been that there is not any reason for Illinois students or their friends and relatives back home to worry about safety in Barcelona.

“My prediction at this point is that all of the students studying abroad from Illinois will complete their studies with no problem whatsoever.”

“There is no threat to students’ safety, but there could be inconveniences caused by strikes, whether on the transport, at the UPF or general citywide strikes. My prediction at this point is that all of the students studying abroad from Illinois will complete their studies with no problem whatsoever and that political tensions shall be limited as we approach our Catalan elections on (Dec. 21). Illinois students leave before these elections,” Lorenz said.

Collum imparted a similar opinion on the matter. He said students or international travelers being threatened was not a driving concern, as he calls the political situation one that has both sides advocating for peaceful resolution.

“Instead, the concern is students accidentally being caught up in the large rallies and the chance for the unexpected to happen wherever large crowds assemble. That has shaped International Safety and Security messaging to travelers; we seek to inform them of the major rallies and share ideas for remaining safe, most prominently avoiding the gatherings all together,” Collum said.

Unlike the Spanish political situation, there has been a situation that gave the University of Illinois a legitimate reason to express concern for the safety of its students studying abroad.

Collum mentioned an incident that predated his time as associate director in which University students had been required to evacuate Egypt.

“There was a University program in the country led by faculty with regional experience,” Collum said. “The faculty recommended canceling the program approximately 48 hours before the Department of State issued similar guidance. The University successfully evacuated students without incident.”

Though most Illinois study abroad programs are not likely to be presented with disturbances within host countries that warrant evacuation, the coordinators of these programs have other reasons to remain vigilant.

Collum recalled the more recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, as well as the bombing in Manchester.

“International Safety and Security worked diligently with programs to account for all students in the area and provide assistance,” Collum said. “Those situations can be difficult as our first priority is accounting for travelers, then assessing needs. We are constantly communicating with students, faculty, programs and sponsoring departments to update our status.”

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