Study Abroad and Sexual Assault: What’s the Connection?

When I studied abroad I was impressed by how many of the students on my program felt comfortable engaging in activities that back home would have been considered “risky” or “inappropriate”. Don’t get me wrong, drinking heavily is definitely something nearly every college student has experience with, but I’m sure most of my friends wouldn’t have felt comfortable drinking the way they do at campus parties in places where they didn’t know anyone or knew very little about the place where they were staying. While we were abroad, though, those inhibitions seemed to dissipate as we spent more time in-country.

At one point, a group of about six of us (all women) had decided to visit a local club in a small beach town where things were fairly calm. Late into the evening we noticed that one of our group members was missing. We set out in pairs to look for her only to find her in a compromised postion on the beach, alone with a guy none of us recognized. Dehydrated, intoxicated, and bruised, we took her back to the hostel to comfort her in her distress. I’m certain that her story is more common that we in the international education field would like to believe.

Why? The answer isn’t the same for every case, but one recent publication out of Middlebury College suggests that women who study abroad are indeed more likely than their peers who remain in the U.S. to experience some kind of sexual assault. There is a host of possible explanations as to why this may be the case: easier access to alcohol, weak social networks, and differences in cultural cues. Considering that the majority of students who study abroad are women (IIE Open Doors Report) and there is a greater push to get students to study in non-traditional (generally non-English speaking) countries, professionals working in student exchange need to take a more serious look at how to prepare young women for their experience abroad.

There are ways that institutions and study abroad providers can better prepare their female students when they go abroad, though.

Pre-Departure Training
Talking about the possibility of sexual assault abroad into the pre-departure discussion is one place to start. Discussing resources available to students while they’re abroad is key, but it is also important to let students know that they have resources available in the case something does happen. Building awareness among students is imperative.

Mechanisms for Reporting Incidences
Program providers and institutions managing their own programs should also make information about the resources available to students while they’re abroad more overt. If there isn’t an existing protocol for handling incidences of sexual assault, there should be. The Forum on Education Abroad’s publication “Standards of Good Practices in Education Abroad” offers good guiding questions for providers.

This topic is important issue because the students ultimately benefit from better preparation for their time abroad and providers and institutions benefit from students with positive accounts of their time abroad.

Published by lilylop

Lily Lopez-McGee is deeply committed to equalizing access to education and increasing opportunities for underrepresented students to gain international credentials. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has traveled through parts of Latin America and Western Europe.

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