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Past incidents highlight safety concerns for students abroad

By Eileen Curran, For The Miami Student

In 2004, Miami University student John Petters, 21, was killed while studying abroad. He was on vacation in Florence, Italy at the time.

Petters and friends wandered into a closed garden late one night and began talking with a woman, but a combination of alcohol and language barriers caused a commotion among the group. The father of the woman stabbed Petters to death after mistaking him for an intruder.

Cases like this bring up concerns about student drinking, safety and discipline abroad. When students go abroad, they are often in countries where the drinking age is lower.

Since most students who travel overseas are of legal drinking age in their new locations, some worry that this may cause students to go overboard on the drinking, which in turn sacrifices safety.

Kayla Guinigundo, associate director of global initiatives at Miami, said systems are in place for discipline abroad.

"Drinking abroad is not something we encourage. Students are subject to the laws of the country and are aware that they will be held accountable to the Miami Code of Conduct," Guinigundo said. "If they have a violation when abroad, the chances are they may also face comparable disciplinary implications when they return."

Drinking culture overseas tends to be very different than American drinking culture. Senior McKenzie Parizek, who studied abroad in Luxembourg, said drinking abroad isn't any worse than in the United States.

"Although we may drink more frequently while abroad, we do not drink as much in each sitting. It is a significantly more casual drinking culture, so you typically only have a few drinks in a sitting because it is very frowned upon to be drunk," Parizek said. "In America, the mindset for college students is usually drinking to get drunk; overseas, drinking is a much more casual, social aspect of life."

Ed Arnone, head of the Miami University Kosovo Program, said most students understand that drinking excessively is looked down upon.

"When you're in another country, you represent yourself, you represent your university, you represent your country - and people form opinions and make judgments on that. I think students get that," Arnone said.

Despite the supposedly more relaxed drinking culture, sophomore Kate Gorjup, who studied abroad last summer in Costa Rica, and said she saw many cases of classmates doing stupid things just because they were drunk.

"There were minor things like people skinny dipping in the ocean and pools one night at the hotel we stayed at, and there were more extreme things such as a girl who slept with the hostel owner and then got charged all sorts of fees the next day because she would not sleep with him again," Gorjup said.

She called this the "you only visit Costa Rica once" mindset.

Arnone said students sometimes let play come before work.

"Students are excited and want to learn about the culture - people sometimes stub their toes a little bit or forget, but then they realize that wasn't such a hot idea because they're behind on everything and they start feeling pressured about the work," Arnone said.

Miami has begun to implement a pre-departure orientation where students learn about expectations while abroad. The orientation covers issues like drinking, safety, identity theft and financial security so that students do not put themselves at any unnecessary risk.

During the orientation, the difference in social norms and drinking laws are discussed as well as the consequences if students take advantage of the laws. The university hopes to make this orientation required for all study abroad programs.

Gorjup said the university provided names, numbers and contacts that could be used in the case that a difficult situation arose.

In more serious cases, the university has an institutional response team that is made aware of the situation and takes a team approach on dealing with incidents.

"Safety is something we try to improve on constantly," Guinigundo said. "The safety of our students abroad is our top priority. We are always looking at ways to do things better and improve communication. We will never be satisfied - there is always something to be revised, adjusted, scrutinized."

While the university continues efforts to improve student safety abroad, the students themselves are very happy with the system as is.

"I think drinking abroad and safety will always be things that need to be addressed, but rather than hammering the rules of the university into the students, I feel it is more effective to express the cultural differences," Parizek said. "The university will never be able to stop students drinking while abroad, but notifying them what it will be like is necessary."