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Strategies for Staying Safe

While it’s common for students and parents to focus their concerns on things like terrorism or civil unrest, it’s more likely for students to be hurt in situations like traffic accidents or while swimming.  

In a foreign culture, it is more challenging to read situations and to assess risks to your physical safety than it is at home, meaning you can no longer rely on your “common sense”.  At a minimum, you must be aware that some behaviors that may be culturally and legally acceptable and seemingly safe in the U.S. may not be safe (or legal) in your host country.

Read some strategies you can develop for staying safe while you’re abroad.

1. Understand the cultural and political environments of the countries you visit.

  • How do locals view students from the U.S.? How should this affect your behavior?
  • What are people’s attitudes about gender relations, race, sexuality, etc., and how are they reflected in local laws?

2. Think about your daily activities. Develop strategies for how to do these things abroad, including how to modify these activities, if necessary.

  • Is there something, like jogging or staying at the library late that you do here?
  • What should you think about/research before doing these same things abroad or should you perhaps not do them abroad?

3. Identify ways to blend in so you’re not targeted as a tourist.

  • What behaviors would identify you as a tourist and how can you avoid them?

4. Learn to pay attention to your instincts and trust them.

  • What types of specific situations make you feel uncomfortable or out of the ordinary?
  • Are you worried about encountering any specific unsafe or uncomfortable situations abroad?
  • When in a situation that feels dangerous, always trust your instincts.  If something feels uncomfortable, don’t do it.

5. Understand that traffic accidents and drowning are the leading causes of death for American students abroad.

Water Safety

River and ocean currents have the potential to be swift and dangerous. There may be no lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches. Students should exercise extreme caution when swimming abroad, particularly in developing countries where emergency services may not be readily available.  Also, in locations that experience heavy seasonal rains, currents can rapidly change in strength and speed. It is our experience that individuals from non-coastal areas often lack experience in assessing ocean currents for riptides and other water hazards related to coastal life. When possible, swim at designated beaches with clear warning systems. Swim between the flags only where a lifeguard is present, and never swim alone. Students should not consume alcohol before or during swimming activities. 

If swimming is a part of your program:

  • Be clear about your swimming abilities
  • Stay in areas designated by your faculty leader and/or resident director
  • Heed all warning signs/flags

Road Safety

Road safety is not something that you may necessarily think about in planning your study abroad experience, but in fact, traffic accidents are a leading cause of death of Americans abroad, particularly college students. And, contrary to popular belief, according to the Association of Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) 85% of such crashes occur in industrialized countries. You can minimize your risk by assessing the road culture in your areas and implementing safe precautions.

ASIRT suggests that you:

  • Select the safest form of transportation in your area
  • Avoid late night road travel in countries with poor safety records and/or mountainous terrain
  • Understand how seasonal hazards affect road conditions
  • Know the dates of local holidays (when road accident rates rise)

Additional suggestions for pedestrians are:

  • Be aware of traffic patterns in your area (they may be very different from those in the U.S.)
  • Be especially alert at intersections
  • Wear reflective clothing if jogging at dusk or dawn (especially in locales where jogging may be uncommon)
  • Do not walk where you cannot easily be seen
  • Remember that most road fatalities are pedestrians
  • Avoid hitchhiking

Additional suggestions for passengers are:

  • Avoid riding with a driver who appears intoxicated, irrational, or over-tired
  • Always ride in the back seat of a taxi cab
  • Wear seat belts whenever possible

We understand that many students are tempted to rent cars, mopeds, or motorbikes during their time abroad, but often do so without regard to the risks of driving in a country whose rules of the road are unfamiliar. However economical or entertaining this may seem, Northwestern University strongly recommends against renting any kind of motorized vehicle abroad. 

Road travel in some developing countries poses additional road risks. Public transportation in some areas may consist of overcrowded, overweight, and top-heavy minivans or buses. Taxicabs may not appear to be in good condition; drivers may or may not be licensed. Sidewalks may or may not be lit, or exist at all. 

In these cases, follow the advice of the on-site staff or your faculty leader. They can teach you how to minimize your risk when selecting various modes of transportation.

For more information about safe international road travel, visit the Association for Safe International Road Travel website.  

Additional Tips for Staying Safe

  • Carry your emergency contact card, ISOS card, and your ID with you at all times.
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself as a foreigner or American. College sweatshirts, baseball caps, and such could be bad choices in an area with strong anti-American sentiment.
  • Know how to ask for help in the local language.
  • Know local emergency telephone numbers.
  • Don’t dangle purses or cameras from your wrist.
  • Don’t carry large amounts of cash or keep all your cash or important documents in one bag.
  • Conceal iPods and MP3 players as best as possible (including not using signature earbuds).
  • Don’t hitchhike.
  • Don’t rent cars, motorcycles, mopeds, or scooters.
  • If you choose to stay out late at night, don’t walk home alone.
  • Be alert in crowded places like train/bus stations and popular tourist destinations.

Sexual misconduct

Sexual misconduct may be particularly difficult to identify abroad, where cultural norms are often different than those in the U.S. However, cultural sensitivity does not mean that you need to submit to behaviors that invade your personal boundaries or that make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Educating yourself about sexual misconduct and gender dynamics abroad can empower you and your peers to make safer choices.