A lonely traveler steps off a train in an unfamiliar country. They look to their phone, but damn — no wifi service. A profusion of people buzz by, saturating the atmosphere with a flood of foreign languages. Panic begins to brew and a million thoughts rush through the traveler’s head. How will they find their way? Are they safe? Undesirable obstacles such as this can be intimidating, but with the right precautions students can feel confident in their travels.
Rafaela Cardona studied abroad in Thailand during a military coup, resided in St. Louis for a week during the Ferguson unrest and experienced life in Europe during the most recent terror attacks. For the Colombian born senior psychology major at Webster Geneva, antagonizing headlines and news reports were not enough to dampen her wanderlust.
Like many students at Webster’s international campuses, traveling had been integrated in Cardona’s life early on. She traveled with her family in Colombia and surrounding areas growing up, then spent summers in Europe studying French before moving to Geneva.
“I’m used to a little more insecurity than people who have come from Europe or Western countries,” Cardona says. “I’ve adapted to always being careful and aware of [my] surroundings.”
A few months before Cardona was set to fly to Cha-Am for a semester, she learned that the country was in the midst of a military coup.
“There were a lot of protests against the military coup and a lot of people were getting arrested for political uprisings,” Cardona says. “The country was not at its best.”
For Sara Rice, sophomore film, television and video production major at Webster St. Louis, media played a role in her hesitation to study abroad in Europe. She and her family specifically had concerns when it came to being in places like airports and train stations.
“Because of what I had heard and seen in the news — such as the bombing in a Munich mall that happened a couple weeks before we left — it was unsettling,” Rice says.
Since being in Geneva, Rice’s perspective has changed on what European life is really like at this time.
“There are military men in certain areas, so I’m more aware of an elevated amount of security, but I definitely don’t feel like it’s this terrifying, terrorism stricken place that the media has portrayed it to be,” Rice says.
Cardona emphasizes the importance of being media literate regarding travel.
“What I’ve gathered from my experiences is that everything tends to look worse when you’re far away,” Cardona says. “When you read something in the news or see it on tv, all you can see is that situation. You don’t see the rest of the country, you don’t see the rest of the people.”
Gael Baboulaz, Study Abroad Program Senior Coordinator at Webster Geneva, is in daily contact with the other Webster campuses to make sure students are secure. She encourages students to inform family and the university of any travel plans ahead of time. Baboulaz also advocates that U.S. students utilize the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — a service that allows citizens to enroll their trips with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate while traveling abroad.
Rice recommends traveling with a group of trusted friends, knowing ahead of time where you’re going and how you’re getting there and being aware of the country’s language and currency. Cardona offers the Spanish expression “no dar papaya.”
“The saying literally translates to ‘don’t give papaya,’ but it means to not put yourself in a troubling situation in the first place,” Cardona says. “Be aware of your surroundings, don’t leave your belongings unattended and be respectful of the culture you are in.”
Upon Cardona’s arrival in Thailand, she was given the “do’s and don’ts” of staying safe in her new environment. Following these cultural guidelines and taking necessary precautions before and during travel, her experience was secure and rewarding.
“It’s a shame that fear takes people away from things as wonderful as travel and studying abroad,” Cardona says. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s worth it.”
Rice says that she is happy with her decision to journey to Europe.
“You really learn a lot about yourself and about the world around you,” Rice says. “I learned that I am an individual who can survive and get around on my own. Don’t be afraid to explore.”
Story by Julia Peschel