When Art History post-doctoral student Elizabeth Cummins decided to move to Egypt in October 2010, she did not think she would have to leave only four months later.
Although she had heard of Egyptian citizen protests against the country’s government planned for Jan. 25, she did not initially find it necessary to evacuate. But by Jan. 28, she explained, “things were unstoppable.”
“I must admit I was nervous, as I lived alone in Cairo,” Cummins wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
. “My biggest concern was the inability to communicate with my loved ones back home and even friends across town. With both the Internet and mobile phones down, there was virtually no way to talk to anyone for a few days.”
Even though Emory had attempted to contact her through e-mail when uprisings began in Egypt, a faulty Internet system prevented her from receiving the message.
Emory did, however, contact her father in Florida, who was listed as her emergency contact, to ensure she was able to leave Egypt. On Feb. 1, she evacuated to Istanbul, Turkey on an American Embassy flight.
Cummins is one member of the Emory community among several who witnessed political and social conflict while pursuing academics overseas recently.
Some recent events have either raised concerns about security and safety or altered student and faculty itineraries for studying abroad.
“Whether it has to do with health safety or security safety, we always have information and measures in place,” said Philip Wainwright, director of Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA). “From street crimes to war breaking out, we make sure students know what to do in the event of an emergency.”
To do so, Wainwright explained, students participating in CIPA programs are advised on how to stay safe while studying abroad during both pre-departure orientation as well as when they arrive at their destination.
Specific topics commonly addressed at these meetings include what kinds of activities or behaviors could be dangerous and not walking around alone, especially at night.
“A lot of the advice is the same advice we would give someone on being safe here in Atlanta,” Wainwright said. “A lot of it is very practical: which areas to go to, which areas not to go to.”
College junior John Culnan, currently studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain, wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
that he feels students are generally capable of taking responsibility for themselves and their actions and to act with prudence.
“If we sense danger in a situation, we should make sure we take appropriate steps to ensure our safety,” he said. “That’s a given regardless of the conditions.”
But Wainwright also acknowledged that CIPA addresses possible issues at pre-departure orientation regarding political unrest or natural disasters and emphasize what sources to rely upon if they are caught such a situation, as well as how to acquire assistance, communicate with the program on site, and if necessary, come back to Emory.
A few students facing such situations in recent months, not all of whom were undergraduate students in CIPA programs, have had to ensure their own safety and security due to the political unrest in Egypt.
Clare Fitzgerald, a PhD. student studying ancient Egyptian Art History who is currently completing a fellowship, wrote in an e-mail that she was supposed to remain in Egypt until October 2011. She has been there since this past September and evacuated back to Atlanta in the beginning of February.
“[I’m] waiting to see when I can go back,” Fitzgerald wrote, adding she was not in Egypt as part of an Emory-administered program.
Cummins, whose plans were also cut short, explained that it was “every man for themselves to get out of the country.” She wrote that when she decided to evacuate Egypt and eventually arrived at the airport, she was unable to reach the terminal she originally planned on going through.
“Thousands of people were crowding the first security checkpoint into the terminal, and fights were breaking out,” she wrote. “Police did not appear to be letting anyone in.”
However, a friend also studying in Egypt called her from a more mellow private plane terminal where the American Embassy had put her friend on a flight to Istanbul.
At first, she was unsure of whether she was going to be on the same flight as her friend, as the American Embassy placed those evacuating on flights to Cyprus and Athens as well.
“When I had left my apartment that morning, I had no idea if I would make it out of the country that day, so it was really quite amazing that things worked out,” Cummins wrote.
But students were not the only ones with itinerary changes. Faculty member Peter Lacovara, senior curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at Emory, was in Egypt when the uprisings started in late January, and although he was not in Cairo, he said his trip was also disrupted by the protests there.
“I had plans to go to other areas of Egypt and possibly other places in the Middle East,” he said.
Lacovara was in Abydos, Egypt — located approximately 700 miles south of Cairo — when the protests began, on an excavation for material from an old kingdom’s tomb, a trip sponsored by the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Carlos Museum. Students and faculty from both Michigan and New York University were also on the trip.
Lacovara said even though Abydos was “pretty safe,” faculty still cut the trip short due to concerns of student safety in the country.
“Their faculty wanted to get them out, but we were in no immediate danger,” Lacovara said.
Lacovara had plans to continue his travels in Luxor, Egypt, but was unable to do so. Still, he explained, Emory staff did show concern for his safety.
“They e-mailed me when they could ... but it was hard to get through because communication was cut by the government,” he said.
Cummins noted there were no security measures in place for her, so she stayed in her apartment most of the time before leaving Egypt.
With the safety issues in Egypt, Wainwright said he is unsure of whether the Egypt CIPA program will take place this fall.
He explained that CIPA continues to monitor the situation through State Department travel warnings and alerts and risk assessment from International SOS, an organization devoted to ensuring security and health safety during travel.
“We are proceeding with the applications of the students who want to study [in Egypt],” Wainwright said. “But we are working with them to develop some alternatives, looking to alternate destinations or a different time frame to travel there.”
College sophomore Christiana Ponder said that she postponed her fall 2011 travel plans to Egypt partially due to security concerns.
Ponder was initially planning on studying in Egypt this fall, but due to the violence in combination with the fact that she plans to be abroad for the entire year, she is now applying to travel to Europe for fall 2011 and Egypt in the following spring.
Although there were recently some uprisings in Morocco, College sophomore Deborah Schlein, who plans to study there this summer, said protests in the area have been calmer than those in other regions.
Despite some conflict, Schlein and several other students will still be going to abroad.
“I still want to go because I think this program is a great opportunity to improve on all my Arabic skills, and attaining fluency in this language is very important to me,” Schlein said.
Wainwright acknowledged that despite conflicts overseas, many students, like Schlein, both in the past and present, want to study abroad to pursue their academic goals.
“There are many things that can be accomplished by studying abroad in a particular location,” Wainwright said. “If it’s possible to support a student who wants to study abroad to advance their educational goals, we’ll do it, but not if it’s dangerous. And that’s really the conversation that’s going on now.”
Wainwright said that as a result of political and social unrest overseas, Emory has canceled programs in the past, including past programs in India, Israel, Kenya and Mexico over the past decade due to health-related issues, unrest or war.
“If we feel like there are particular places abroad that are not safe for students, we make different plans to make sure students are safe,” said Dana Tottenham, CIPA associate director and study abroad advisor for Spain programs.
While students and faculty in the Middle East have seen political unrest up close, another event has also raised safety and security concerns about students and CIPA staff: the death of 22-year-old San Diego State University (SDSU) student Austin Bice, whose body was found in the Manzanares River in Madrid on Mar. 8. Bice, who was found intoxicated, had left a nightclub by himself, though the precise cause of his death remains unknown.
Culnan wrote that initially, the death had not been talked about much. However, a week after the death occurred, the program director brought up the incident at a meeting with all of the study abroad students on the program.
“She recommended we register with the U.S. Embassy, and unsurprisingly, advised us to always be responsible, especially about alcohol consumption,” Culnan wrote.
Valerie Molyneaux, director of BBA International Programs for the Goizueta Business School, with one of these programs located in Madrid, said “it is natural for educators at all universities to re-double efforts to make sure students are as safe as possible.”
B-School junior Carli Simkin, currently studying abroad in Barcelona, wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel
that many students have been affected by the death of Bice, not only because it is a “true tragedy,” she wrote, but also because many of her peers have begun taking extra precautions to stay safe in Spain. She said many of her friends have taken vows to always travel in groups at night.
Recently, Simkin witnessed a student leaving for home after dark.
“Rather than let her walk home alone or pay for an expensive taxi by herself, several of her friends insisted that they each pitch in a Euro or two so that she could take a taxi home without having to worry about not having enough money to pay for it,” Simkin said.
Tottenham said Emory is saddened by the news of the student’s death and that the health and safety of Emory’s students studying abroad is one of CIPA’s top priorities. She noted that students traveling to Spain undergo the typical pre-departure and on-site safety orientations, but also that CIPA stays alert for incidents that happen abroad so they can monitor the situation to ensure student safety.
Although she has not received any specific inquiries from students or parents regarding the incident, she said she will likely mention the student’s death in next semester’s pre-departure orientation.
“Because this particular student was leaving late at night, it’s something we would mention to our students,” she said. “Making sure you’re not alone at night, making sure you have a safe way to get home — those are really important.”
Although Cummins had to resign from her job in Egypt, she wrote she is now pursuing her studies full-time.
“I left for more reasons than just the protests,” Cummins wrote. “But since the project was a government project, I felt there was even less financial security in the job now.”
Tottenham said that as unexpected conflicts occur overseas, the University stays in tune with what is happening, making decisions based on the information it acquires.
“If we feel like there are particular places that are not safe for students, we encourage them to make different plans to make sure the students are safe,” she said. “The world is a very dynamic place, and we are constantly abreast of what is happening.”
— Contact Jordan Friedman.