Students Discuss the Dangers of Studying Abroad

Junior biology major Madison Bunker stands in front of a castle on a trip to Salzburg, Austria, while studying abroad for the 2022-2023 academic year in Heidelberg, Germany (Photo courtesy Madison Bunker).

In the city of Nice, France, junior biology major Madison Bunker and three other female friends decided to rent an apartment for a getaway weekend. However, their excitement dialed down when their host, supposedly a woman, turned out to be two unknown men showing odd behavior.

Bunker said she panicked when the men insisted on showing them around the apartment, and then tried to get just two of the women to go outside to see where the trash should go. She said she saw a car pull up, and an exchange of money happened between the car and the two men. Bunker and her friends called an Uber and immediately left. 

“Trust your gut,”  Bunker said. “We could have stuck around, but we all had a feeling that we needed to go.” 

A Pepp Post poll of 66 students found that 95% of individuals who studied abroad felt safe in their host country, however, 55% experienced an alarming situation while traveling. 

Studying abroad sounds like a dream come true for students who are curious about the world. From life changing experiences to exploring new cultures, there are a lot of benefits to studying abroad. However, with any travel comes security risks and a reminder to always stay alert while traveling. 

Number of alarming situations in programs 

Pepperdine has six International Programs to choose from that offers students the opportunity to travel the world. 

Approximately 80% of students study abroad during their undergraduate years, according to Pepperdine’s International Programs website.  Pepperdine has one of the top study-abroad programs in the nation, according to U.S. News Best College Rankings.

Despite this, students still face security threats while traveling, principally negative encounters such as unwanted flirtations, being yelled at or followed by strangers.

Though most students said they felt safe during their travels, several experienced one or more alarming situations. The poll found that 60% of incidents happened while traveling in another country outside their host country.

“Don’t assume you’re going to be OK, because you have no idea,” Allen said. 

Students should never let their guard down and be aware of the potential dangers and people surrounding them. 

“I think going abroad with Pepperdine you just think it will be fine and nothing will happen,” Bunker said. 

On the other hand, the majority of students said they feel safe in their host country. 

In the first few days of arriving at their abroad locations, Travis Hill-Weber, director of the Buenos Aires program, said students are given instructions from faculty on how to handle safety situations.

“During orientation we cover safety and security — at least the basics,” Hill-Weber said. “Our biggest concern in a place like Buenos Aires, which is no different from any other city in the world, is petty crime and petty theft, and we talk about that.”

Faculty strive to keep students safe by having specific safety measures, such as security systems to enter classroom buildings.

 “Students access the property with their fingerprints,” Hill-Weber said.“Our hours are from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

Students also have International SOS, a concierge system for students to call with safety or medical concerns. 

“They can help guide a student in responding to a situation of concern,” Hill-Weber said. 

Students are also encouraged to contact local authorities if they are in urgent need of more assistance.

“If it is something that is emergent and a student doesn’t have time to be in touch with a staff member or International SOS first,” Hill-Weber said. “Then we recommend students call local authorities.”

Using these tips and tools, along with being cautious, enables safe travels.

Students face frightening traveling experiences 

More than half of Pepperdine students who studied abroad experienced alarming situations.

Junior accounting major Cole Raschke said he experienced a frightening situation at a train station in Germany while traveling with his girlfriend. 

“A man approached us, and was like, ‘Do you speak English?” Raschke said.  “He continued to talk to us.”

He said the man never looked at him once, but kept staring at his girlfriend. 

“It became unsettling because he was making comments about her body, and inappropriate stuff that a random stranger should not say,” Raschke said. 

The situation took a turn when the man touched Rashke’s girlfriend’s hand.

“I pushed him back and he threatened me by saying he had a knife,” Raschke said.

Although Raschke was unsure if the man had a knife or not, he knew that safety was his main priority. 

He remained calm and collected when interacting with the man.

Eventually, Raschke and his girlfriend were able to get away from the man, and leave on the train safely. 

Theft as a common abroad experience 

Roughly 8% of students polled said they experienced theft while abroad. 

 Junior advertising major Hannah Allen studied in Florence and took a trip to Milan with her friends, staying at a four-star hotel. After coming back from a long day, she realized her belongings were stolen. 

She said her wallet with her cards were all out, and her cash was gone. 

“I felt super violated, I felt so scared,” Allen said. “I was crying calling my mom, we were all freaking out.”

Other personal belongings such as airpods were also taken, and Allen said she lost over 1,000 Euros. The incident was reported to Italian authorities, but she has not heard back since.

“We thought maybe it was the hotel who was behind it, or a worker who went into our room,” Allen said.

Junior psychology major Kate Jade, who studied in Buenos Aires, experienced possible theft at Lollapalooza — a popular music festival. 

“I was in a mosh pit at Lil Nas X’s concert, and my phone was either taken from my bag or it fell,”  Jade said.“It happened in a matter of seconds.”

She said her phone was still on and she could track it, but she did not want to go to a dangerous area in Argentina.

The poll found that 70% of students did not report their incident because they did not believe it was serious enough. 

“There are people who go there specifically to do stuff like that,” Jade said.

After the incident, Jade could not get a new phone in Argentina, and her friend had a burner phone which she used only when Wi-Fi was available.

How to Stay Safe 

There are many measures students can take to avoid theft and frightening experiences. This includes being attentive at all times, and keeping belongings in sight. 

“We made sure we only stayed at Airbnbs with tons of reviews,” Bunker said. 

While checking for reviews can offer a sense of security, it is also important to take into consideration where personal belongings are placed. 

“I always make sure to keep my stuff in the safe,”Allen said.  “Your wallet, your purse, your phone.”

When traveling internationally, Raschke said it is also important to always stay alert of the environment and people around you.

“There’s dangers everywhere,” Raschke said. “But as long as you’re aware of yourself and your surroundings you’ll be OK.”

Many students who travel abroad face similar alarming experiences, however, by learning safety tips and procedures they can stay safe. 

“Look like you know where you’re going, because if you look like a tourist you’re going to be a target automatically,” Jade said.

Ana Isabella Villarreal completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.