Thousands of people rallied in downtown Barcelona on Oct. 1 to protest after Catalan political leaders voted on a controversial independence referendum. Violence quickly erupted between civilians and Spanish national police. More than 850 people were injured when riot police raided polling stations and forcibly removed voters.
The Spanish autonomous community has descended into an aggressive struggle between Catalan natives and the national police force. Despite the protests, the Office of International Affairs and organizations such as IES Abroad Barcelona plan to continue their study abroad programs without any changes.
During their tenures at Lehigh, 44 percent of students participate in internships or study abroad programs. Some of these students choose to study in areas that have been marred by recent terror or violence, like Barcelona.
However, the IES Abroad Barcelona crisis management team and the Office of International Affairs at Lehigh assure that regions such as Barcelona remain safe for student travel.
In an email to IES abroad Barcelona spring 2018 students, Michael Green, the associate vice president of college relations, wrote that the program prepares for uncertainty but hopes the current situation will be resolved peacefully prior to the start of the spring semester. He said IES plans to run the spring program in Barcelona as scheduled.
Katie Welsh Radande, Lehigh’s director of study abroad, said the university is not making any changes to its programs for the current and upcoming semesters.
“However, if students are uncomfortable traveling to any region, that’s a decision they have to make themselves,” she said.
Welsh also said Lehigh has methods for ensuring students’ safety not only in Barcelona and regions in Spain but for all students who travel abroad.
Welsh said Lehigh partners with organizations that provide safety alerts about events happening abroad. These organizations include International SOS, a 24-hour emergency response group that offers medical and security consultation and response for students abroad, and the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which monitors worldwide issues and provides the Office of International Affairs with daily updates regarding recent events. Lehigh also works with the U.S. Department of State.
Welsh said Lehigh itself ensures students’ safety through communication between students and the crisis management team at the university. This team assesses the possible impact of circumstances and events on students and determines the need for additional communication, decisions, or university responses to the specific emergency or crisis.
Additionally, Welsh said students sent abroad are enrolled in the State Department’s smart traveler enrollment program. This program receives information from the embassy about safety conditions in a student’s study abroad country and helps them make informed decisions about their travel plans.
While recent events may be concerning, this year is not the first time students have faced a crisis when studying or working abroad.
In the spring and summer of 2017, there were multiple terror attacks in London.
Bea Maloney, ’19, interned in London in June and July. She said she was frequently around the Borough Market area, where three Islamic terrorists fled and stabbed multiple people on June 3, after running their car into several pedestrians on the London Bridge.
“Knowing that I could have been in Borough Market at that time made everything that was going on very real,” she said. “It hit so much closer to home because it could have been me.”
Jennifer Tomany, ’18, studied at University College London during the spring 2017 semester. She said she and her boyfriend, who had come to visit her for the week, were right near the Palace of Westminster the day before the March 22 terrorist attack in that vicinity.
“I felt really lucky because I wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “It was scary but at the same time, there was a great amount of security that made me feel safe.”
Juliana DeMaria, ’18, studied in London from December 2016 to April 2017 as a direct-enroll student at Queen Mary University of London. She said she would run in St. James Park around Westminster, an area that was attacked in March.
DeMaria said she was surprised by how quickly London officials responded to the attack and how the news was quick to reassure people’s safety.
While there was a response from Lehigh to ensure DeMaria’s safety, she felt there could have been a stronger follow-up from the school. She said her roommates and friends in Westminster who attended other universities had alumni-based outlets to reach out to in times of safety concerns.
She suggested Lehigh follow in the footsteps of schools such as Penn State and Boston College, who had alumni volunteers in host countries who served as mentors for students abroad.
Despite these events, all three Lehigh students said studying abroad isn’t something to fear.
“I think you can learn about the world by traveling to places where you need to be aware of your surroundings,” Maloney said. “You can learn a lot about yourself, too.”
Tomany said studying abroad was one of the best experiences she’s had. Although she said the terrorist attacks were terrible tragedies, she thinks events like these can happen anywhere, not just in European cities.
“I definitely wouldn’t discourage students from traveling abroad,” Tomany said. “You can’t stop living your life.”