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SAFETI Clearinghouse
SAFETI Online Newsletter

Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 2000 - Summer 2000

How Do We Really Know What Happens to Our Students Overseas?

The University of the Pacific SAFETI Survey and Its Relation to Cross-Cultural Training Courses

By Bruce LaBrack


There are few topics in study abroad which concern student advisors and office directors more than the health and safety of their students while they are overseas. Beyond the very real issues of legal liability and moral culpability, there is also the desire that every participant in our program has a personally rewarding and academically productive experience. Every institution or organization that sends students abroad has the professional responsibility to provide some kind of orientation, including health and safety issues, and most do an adequate job.

Nevertheless, we at the University of the Pacific (UOP) have been concerned for years about things we had heard from or about returning students on our campus regarding crime overseas and/or deteriorating conditions in some of the areas to which we send students (e.g. Russia, Africa, mid-East, Indonesia). Moreover, much information about student safety-related issues occurring overseas is transmitted in tales about "war stories" or "close calls", or "I survived" narratives, and much that occurs is not, for a variety of reasons, officially reported by students.

Of course, we know that bad things happen to students. If the situation is dire enough, we know immediately. In critical cases of severe illness or assault we are alerted by overseas advisors, accompanying faculty, a sponsoring agency, or the students themselves. But, thankfully, these types of catastrophic occurrences are relatively infrequent. Yet, when the safety incidents are less serious or traumatic, how often do we hear about them other than as anecdotal stories? Do we have any idea of the frequency of such incidents? The circumstances under which they occurred? The response of the student and, perhaps, the local authorities? I suspect that most institutions do not actively compile such records and may even be largely unaware of the number and type of such lesser events. I know we at the University of the Pacific were stunned recently when we discovered that most of our students had some kind of safety-related incident occur while overseas. Further, we believe they are not atypical of their peer groups elsewhere who study abroad.

The FIPSE/USC SAFETI Project at The University of the Pacific

Beginning Fall of 1998, following funding by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) in the US Department of Education, UOP joined a group of universities led by USC who were concerned with health and safety issues revolving around study abroad. We decided to use part of our FIPSE funding to conduct a "safety incident survey" at UOP. We wanted to determine exactly what was going on overseas to our students, both to gain a clear idea of the actual nature and frequency of such events as well as determine if we could do something more in our Orientation to prepare our students for the realities already encountered by their peers. We uncovered a significant "hidden dimension" as we undertook to answer some of the questions posed above. In part, the study was motivated by the availability of outside research support to create and administer such a survey and the desire of the funding agency to explore health and safety issues as part of the SAFETI project. But, the need had been there for some time.

The Re-Entry Class: Finding Out "What's Going On Overseas"?

Beyond available funding, a more long-standing concern was the revelation of "everyday" safety incidents which our students returning from abroad regularly reported in the mandatory course Cross-Cultural Training II (CCCT-II: "Analysis of Overseas Experience" aka "Re-Entry"). Every UOP School of International Studies student is required to go abroad and to take CCT II as part of their graduation requirement upon return. Non-SIS students who have studied abroad on UOP programs are also welcome in the class and every semester a number participate in Re-Entry.

Detailed descriptions of Theoretical and pedagogical origins of the cross-cultural training courses offered by UOP have been reviewed elsewhere (including the previous SAFETI Newsletter available on this web site) so this material will not be repeated here, except to note that without the informal information generated in the CCT-II course it would be unlikely that we would have been motivated to undertake a more systematic investigation.

I was often disturbed, if not surprised, when students casually mentioned a mugging, an indecent exposure, an armed robbery, or a dangerous crowd situation as part of some other topic of discussion in the CCT-II class. The purpose of the course is not to uncover safety incidents, but to help students make some sense of their overseas experience, link it to their ongoing studies, and discuss how it might be used in their future careers. The syllabus for this course is available at:

Nevertheless, the number of students who would immediately sympathize with, say a theft, because it had happened to them, was indicative that many more negative events were happening to our students abroad than we were normally aware of. More worrisome was the fact that we would not be very likely to find out about such incidents in the normal course of events. Most importantly, any information on such events could, and certainly should, be immediately recycled into our Cross-Cultural Training I (CCT-I: Orientation) course as part of raising the awareness of our outbound students to the possibility of such incidents occurring to them...not to create paranoia, but to give them a "reality check" and to encourage them to think about how to avoid unnecessary danger and the consequences of risky behavior. The first step to remedy this situation was taken in Spring semester, 1999 when we produced the UOP Safety Incident Survey.

The SAFETI Survey

The Safety survey consisted of creating, pre-testing, revising, and then administering an interview questionnaire to forty former UOP study abroad students, who had returned to campus within the past three semesters, about their experiences overseas regarding issues of safety, criminal activity, and sense of vulnerability (questionnaire available online at: The responses were sobering in that there were approximately 100 "incidents" (2.5 per person average) recorded from the original 40 person sample in which the student was directly involved in some kind of negative situation. The most serious of these involved robbery, theft, or assault while most incidents were somewhat less threatening, but still disturbing (e.g. being caught in an unruly crowd or demonstration, etc.) We did document, separately, any safety incidents that were directly related to our students by other non-UOP students who had experienced them (e.g. a program roommate who was a victim of a pickpocket), but these were not entered into our student's safety incident totals. We made serious efforts to cull out third-hand reports and "rumors" and concentrated only on safety-related events the individual student directly experienced or of which they had reliable second-hand knowledge.

Demographically, the breakdown of the first 40 respondents was fairly typical of that reported by most liberal arts/social sciences schools with study abroad programs with 30% (#12) males and 70% (#28) females with the majority (#31) being juniors (78%) at the time of their overseas study at an average age of twenty years old. Their study locations were, in order of number of participants, England (#11), France (#7 - all in Paris), Spain (#4), Netherlands (#2), Germany (#2), Greece, (#2) Italy (#2), and one each in Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Kenya, Hong Kong, Ireland, Indonesia (Bali), Switzerland, China, Uganda, and South Africa. Some of our students traveled within, or studied in more than one country or program while abroad. In such cases we recorded the totals of their safety incidents and then separated them out by country or program so we could track individual locales.

The most common reported crimes were pick-pocketing (#13), mugging (#6), purse-snatching (#3) indecent exposure (#3), with additional reports of: theft from cars, backpacks, on trains or public transport (#5), burglary (#2), sexual assault (see discussion below), stoning (yes, that kind of Biblical throwing of rocks), and domestic abuse. The most frequently mentioned countries in terms of types of crimes were Italy for theft and Paris, France for indecent exposure. The safest places with minor, or no incidents, occurring were New Zealand and Japan.

Although not "crimes", commonly reported safety issues included exposure to dangerous crowd behavior not directed at the student but with a high potential for injury. These occurred during sporting events (#5 -European soccer games specifically), during student protests (#4 - one each in France, Germany, London and South Africa), and, indirectly, when present at bar brawls/fights (#3). A long litany of other types of events included: a firebombed car, a University student riot (not a "protest"), demonstrations at embassies, during elections, at political events, at NATO protest marches, mail bombs going off in the neighborhood and package bombs in public places, ‘excessive police force’ in crowd control situations, passengers fighting in a bus, and a New Year's Eve celebration which got seriously out-of-hand.

Two further "incidents" included students subjected to what they saw as "unlawful search" and "police harassment." Some students speculated that perhaps the behavior was intended as a prelude to requests for a bribe, but that did not materialize in these two cases. Another student reported being "terrorized" by armed soldiers by having guns pointed at him for reasons he still doesn't understand. These types of incidents are all hard to quantify and many don't fit neat categories.

Another, more culturally ambiguous category was "sexual harassment" which was used by students as a cover term to classify so broad a range of behaviors as to be rendered somewhat ineffective as a category, or at least so imprecise that further explanations are required to determine exactly what the respondent meant. The confusion came because some behavior originally reported, as "sexual harassment" clearly wasn't that benign. In a few instances the behavior reported certainly qualified for the (to our minds) much more serious legal definitions of either "assault", albeit verbal (e.g. threatening or violent speech and gestures, often sexual), or actual "battery" (grabbing, striking, fondling, holding or rubbing against a person). In other words, in some cases the behavior as reported seems to us to be miscategorized as acts which were less serious than they actually were. On the other hand, some behavior was labeled as "sexual assault" which it was obviously not, but rather a kind of "sexual harassment" and therefore overstating its seriousness.

Many of the verbal behaviors reported, however repugnant to American women -- for this was only directed towards women and, almost always, in public -- were common cultural displays probably seen as harmless by their producers. Understanding this as a "part of their culture" in southern Europe or India or Egypt in no way diminishes the negative feelings it engenders in young women subjected to such boorishness or excuses it, but it is of quite a different behavioral category than criminal assault. Some care needs to be exercised by those eliciting or interpreting the questionnaires to make sure that the labels given by the students are an accurate reflection of the behavior they encountered.

The fact that this kind of behavior often originated from young men who did not appear to direct such attention towards local girls and women (or at least not as aggressively) but mostly towards North American females and other foreign women was often seen as a further insult by many American students encountering this abroad for the first time. Their sense of vulnerability may be greatly increased if Their language skills are not adequate to either understand exactly what is being said or to respond appropriately. Or, more to the point, if they do not realize that the most appropriate response might be to NOT to respond at all!

Thus, while this behavior may be interpreted totally negatively by the victim and anger or frighten them, it is rare for it to be considered a "crime" by local police, even if it increases the target's sense of violation and is deeply unsettling. Thus, in our original survey when returning students reported "sexual assault" it was necessary to determine the degree and severity of the reported behavior rather than accept it uncritically as a valid report of what is technically known as sexual assault and/or battery. This has be done sensitively and with great care as rape (both stranger and date-rape) and molestation do occur abroad and have happened before to students on our programs. No rapes have been reported to us in several years and only one sexual assault came to light recently (not in the original sample of 40 but in the surveys from Fall 1999 which are not included here).

In later revisions of the original questionnaire we separated several categories (obscene behavior, indecent exposure, and sexual assault) and dropped "sexual harassment" in an attempt to make future analytical data more precise. Of course, we also suspect that some students, for their own personal reasons, will refuse to report or reveal rape or sexual assault to anyone under any circumstance, much less in an impersonal written survey or in a brief Reentry interview. Those instances may remain hidden forever outside of survey data (but still have strong negative effects on students).

However, the total impression we had as we went through the written surveys and added any clarifying information we had from subsequent student interviews (if available) was that much more was going on overseas than we had any idea about before administering the safety incident survey -- and much of what was revealed worried us. Of course, we realize that the numbers involved in the initial survey are so small that the sample cannot be considered more than roughly representative. We can't at present make quantitatively generalizable statements which would have much claim to validity. Nevertheless, the point for us was not, for the moment, statistical elegance but the obvious fact of too many students being involved in too many situations which made us concerned for their safety.

Program Changes Due to Safety Survey

I will now concentrate on what measures we have taken in light of what seemed to us an unacceptably high rate of safety incidents. I won't dwell here on the liability questions or even the moral issues of knowing (or not knowing) what is happening to our students on our programs, but discuss only the programmatic changes we made as a result of having disturbing survey results which raised a number of red flags for faculty and staff dealing with study abroad.

One of the most critical, and immediate, results of this initial survey was to make a Safety Survey a permanent part of the required reentry interview of all UOP students who have studied abroad. International Programs and Services (IPS), who had assisted in administering and tabulating the original survey, agreed to take on the added responsibility of insuring that from Fall 1999 onwards every student who goes on a UOP study-abroad program will complete the Safety Incident Survey as part of their required "Re-Entry Interview with IPS." The survey is confidential, untraceable, and unsigned -- and destroyed as soon as that semesters' data is tabulated. We are so serious about gathering and utilizing this information that we have agreed on the policy that a students overseas grade transcript will not be released to the registrar until this survey is completed! This was not a change of policy as previously grades from overseas study abroad were not released until the student had scheduled and completed the re-entry interview. What was new here was adding the safety survey as another component of the already required interview, but doing so insures complete safety records will be gathered in the future.

We feel that one of the lessons of our initial survey is that we should aim to attain 100% compliance to keep the University informed of what our students are experiencing. As each semester or summer session study abroad student returns to campus they will be scheduled for a re-entry interview, part of which includes filling out the Safety Incident Survey, and if they wish, discussing it with the interviewer. The resulting data for that semester of summer session will be recorded and analyzed as an independent set and then added to a cumulative data base. In this way, the University of the Pacific can monitor student safety issues by semester and in summary form at all sites we sponsor . We can further analyze the data by category [gender, age, class standing (i.e. sophomore, junior), location, program, type of incident, etc.] and identify and track trends longitudinally.

This ongoing process will also help in risk assessment and delivering accurate and honest pre-departure advising on current circumstances abroad to students and their parents. As a result of this information we are putting a much stronger emphasis on safety in pre-departure student preparation including additional consciousness-raising through adding a Student Study Abroad Workbook (details below) and additional safety components to the Cross-Cultural Training I (Orientation) course required of all UOP students going abroad (available on-line at:

The New IPS Study Abroad Workbook and Its Relation to CCT-I

At the same time that the initial SAFETI survey was being conducted, the Director of International Programs and Services, Donna Cheshire, was in the process of producing both a Student Guide and a Study Abroad Workbook. The Student Guide is the type of document that most Study Abroad offices produce for their students and details the procedures, requirements, forms, and sequence that a student should follow. It is informational and general.

The Study Abroad Workbook is separate and quite different. The Workbook is composed of eight sections that cover topics from health issues to housing and meals and general travel information. It poses a variety of "questions" that students must specifically answer regarding their study abroad site. These answers must be current and accurate. Where feasible, the World Wide Web/Internet is to be used and sample sites are provided. While the Workbook was in process before the survey was done, the results were an additional impetus to deal with safety-related issues in a more detailed manner (like "Do you know how to use a phone in your destination country?" and "How do you dial the police or emergency phone numbers overseas?"). (available on-line at:

The IPS program further proposed that completion of the Workbook be required as an additional element of their office's required pre-departure preparation and that SIS facilitate this by having the Workbook be completed by students as part of the CCT I course. Essentially, the workbook is both a requirement of IPS and part of the grade in CCT I. We enthusiastically agreed, and since Fall 1999 students going abroad must complete the workbook by the end of the CCT I course. The Director of IPS grades the workbook, and it is now worth 10% of a student's overall grade in CCT I. We think this arrangement fits nicely with what concurrently happens in the CCT I classroom and shows that the University of the Pacific, in general, and IPS and SIS in particular, are serious about preparing students to go abroad and concerned about their safety while there.


The results of our SAFETI survey were a wake up call to those of us involved in study abroad at the University of the Pacific, and we intend to follow through on making the gathering and utilization of safety incident surveys an ongoing part of our study abroad program. The results were widely distributed within UOP, and we will continue to disseminate new information through International Programs and Services and the School of International Studies.

The initial results of the survey were also publicly presented at a session on safety issues at NAFSA: Association of International Educators convention in Denver in May, 1999. They have been part of several other public presentations at subsequent professional meetings, including a workshop for the Southern California Consortia on International Studies in March, 2000. We have provided the USC SAFETI office with copies of the pre-test and final revised questionnaires and a tabulation of the results. We have also given the SAFETI project permission to post anything they wish from this survey on the USC SAFETI web site and will provide them with updated information each semester.

More directly, the results of recent surveys are also made part of the CCT I Orientation so students are regularly apprised of current safety issues they may face in the near future. It certainly gets their attention! Pedagogically, it is important that the data be presented in a way that indicates that incidents are only the potential results of not using common sense and understanding local circumstances...something students can probably avoid with enough knowledge and caution...rather than an inevitable consequence of careless behavior. One must be careful to raise awareness, not only instill fear, as many students in study-abroad orientation classes are already nervous enough about their impending adventure.

We encourage study abroad offices everywhere to find some way to track the safety issues which their returning students faced while abroad. We recognize how difficult it might be to accomplish this in a one-person office or in larger campuses with more diffuse centers and/or independent study abroad programs. We realize that since the Stockton campus of the University of the Pacific has only 4,000 students, and the UOP study abroad program sends only some 80-100 students a year on international programs, we have a manageable administrative number to deal with. Other institutions may find it difficult to conduct this kind of inclusive sample. Still, it remains imperative that we learn as much as we can manage about the actual situations that our students encounter and not be content with the often sanitized, and sometimes idealized portraits, returnees are prone to promote for public consumption.

I have not addressed any health considerations or the issues of drug use and experimentation while abroad in this article. Nor have I noted any of the complex issues we can refer to generally as "student experiences abroad which would probably not have taken place at home," but which are certainly part of many students returning mental packages. We know all of these can be important aspects of some student’s sojourns. Of course, we will never know everything, or maybe even most, about "what really happened," but it seems that we must make a good faith effort to have as clear and accurate a picture as we can generate, without being overly intrusive. Whatever knowledge we can gain about the situations our students have found themselves in while abroad (particularly about safety issues) can be invaluable as we assist those who are about to go overseas, to better prepare themselves for likely events and potential difficulties. We simply cannot afford not to know the kind of information a safety survey reveals, both for the institutions’ liability and the well being of our past and future students.

Please address any responses to this article and any inquiries about the University of the Pacific cross-cultural training program to the author at the e-mail or mail address below.

Bruce La Brack, Ph.D. Professor of Anthropology and International Studies and Director of Cross-Cultural Training
University of the Pacific
Stockton, California 95211

Please address any inquiries, comments, or suggestions regarding the IPS Study Abroad Workbook or the Safety Incident Survey to:

Donna Cheshire, Director, International Programs and Services
University of the Pacific, Bechtel Center
Stockton, California 95211

For general information on the School of International Studies academic programs please contact:

Dean Margee Ensign, Ph.D.
School of International Studies, University of the Pacific, George Wilson Hall Stockton, California 95211