Students encouraged to take safety precautions while studying abroad

In response to the national story of a study abroad student’s sexual harassment experience in India, University faculty members and the Study Abroad Office encourage students to take safety into account while studying in a foreign country.

Michaela Cross, a South Asian studies major at the University of Chicago, wrote an August 18 account on CNN iReport of her time spent studying abroad in India. She talked about her adventures and the splendor of the country. But Cross also wrote of the stalking, groping and other forms of sexual harassment she commonly encountered.

Mithilesh Mishra, senior lecturer and director of the Hindi and Urdu program at the University, said in an email interview that he felt sympathy for Cross’ struggle.

“Her experience, which she has most courageously articulated, it is quite unfortunately, a familiar narrative,” he said. “Although even Indian women have very similar experiences akin to (Michaela’s), I do believe, a western/foreign woman is considered an easy target by the perpetrators of such horrendous and criminal acts.”

India has repeatedly been the center of several high-profile rape cases in the past months.

In December, a young Indian student was beaten and gang-raped by six men on a bus in New Delhi, resulting in injuries so severe that it led to her death. This act of sexual harassment sparked outrage and protests throughout the country.

Additionally, six days ago, five men repeatedly raped a 22-year-old female photojournalist in the city of Mumbai; she is still recovering.

In response, the Indian government has created stricter laws for perpetrators in an attempt to increase safety for women. However, Mishra said there are still many improvements that need to be made.

“Nobody seems to have a clear answer to this problem, although practically everyone would agree that it is not merely a law and order problem,” he said. “Nothing short of a total social transformation is needed to put an end to such incidents. I see signs of positive changes, but it still seems to be a long journey.”

Many students participate in the University’s study abroad program, 14 of whom travelled to India during the 2010-2011 academic year. Bo Michael White, assistant director for international health and safety at the Study Abroad Office, said the University believes students can stay safe with the proper preparation.

“All University of Illinois students are asked to prepare for the country they will be visiting through careful study,” he said in an email. “We are still a multi-cultural world, and we’re not going to a different version of our own country but an altogether different nation.”

However, while preparation is key, Mishra said safety must be a priority.

“I have been conducting a study abroad course for the last four years in India, and I myself, or my trusted local representatives, always accompany students wherever they go,” Mishra said.

In terms of safety while studying in a foreign country, the University also provides training, access to resident experts, advice from study abroad alumni and a 24/7 emergency hotline, White said.

“While we cannot make concrete promises on issues of safety, whether it’s here in the United States or when traveling abroad, we dedicate full-time staff and resources to prepare and respond as effectively as possible,” he said.

While there are dangers with studying abroad, Kaori Nakamura, a study abroad peer adviser and grad student, said it is a positive and worthwhile experience that greatly adds to a student’s college years.

“One of the greatest parts of studying abroad is overcoming the challenges you are faced with. You have to navigate through it and overcome it, and you grow with those challenges,” she said. “More so, (studying abroad) helped me gain a different perspective on how different cultures work and think.”

McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this report.

Amirah can be reached at [email protected]