Overcoming Our Fear of Abroad

This week, I don’t think that there was anything more disconcerting than finding out that I had gotten into my study abroad program of choice in England and then learning about the horrific attacks at Westminster. I floated on excitement and disbelief, but dropped quickly to a nebulous state of worry upon hearing the news. Immediately, I thought of my two friends who are studying in England and frantically checked their snap stories, hoping that they were busy frolicking around in Germany or Belgium. Nothing. I ended up messaging them and could only truly relax when I received responses that they were okay.

I have experienced many emotions during the study abroad application process. Frustration at the Office of International Programs and its meticulous procedures for applying to study abroad. Stress while gathering all the materials I needed for the application. Anticipation for the host college’s decision. Happiness when I found out that I had been accepted, celebrated by silent screaming in the hallowed center of Gasson. Sadness of the existential sort when it finally hit me that I wouldn’t be seeing my friends for an entire year. Anxiety of the freshman type that I would struggle to acclimate myself in a new environment, make new friends, and handle a rigorous course load.

Fear, however, was a new one. In psychology, we learned that anxiety is a vague sense of apprehension, a worry about some imprecise or even imagined threat. Fear contains a sense of “aboutness.” It is an emotional response to some known or definite threat. It is an acknowledgement that danger is real, definite, and immediate.

Terrorism is a real fear for study abroad students, one that resurfaces whenever I forget that safety while abroad is not guaranteed. Many of us lived through the Brussels and Paris attacks safely behind the fluorescent glow of our phone or laptop screens while the reading the news. Many of us may have wanted to study abroad in those places, and the sheer thought of being in such a horrific situation might have changed our minds. After hearing about the Westminster attacks, I felt fear.

The thought of rescinding my application, however, never crossed my mind, because the fear of not going outweighed the risks I would have avoided by staying in the United States.

Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance, but there are many valid reasons why the fear of the risks should not stop someone from going abroad. Strikingly, even though terrorist strikes have cast an overwhelming shadow over international travel and lead students to think twice about going abroad, colleges and universities are reporting that the risks have done little to slow the popularity of international study. The number of U.S. students studying abroad rose 60 percent between 2004 and 2014.

It’s important to keep in mind that incidents of terrorism do not occur in a vacuum. Attacks have happened in the past and continue to happen. They often happen on American soil. It is a real threat that exists in society that students must acknowledge, but not let cripple and overwhelm the way they live their lives. We must measure the risk of terrorism in the context of other risks, understanding that life itself is full of danger. You could be killed in a car crash or die of disease, but that should not stop you from living your life. Students’ fear of terrorism is both rational and irrational. It is rational in that there is an ever-present threat of a terrorist attack occurring , but irrational in the probability assigned to that potential event happening.

We’ve acknowledged that it is okay to be afraid. What now? Terrorism, as defined by the FBI, “is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The aims of terrorist attacks are to induce fear, especially among civilians, within a society. They are a form of psychological warfare. Perhaps one of the best ways to deal with this threat is to push past the fear.

The recent attacks in Europe should not deter people from studying abroad. Rather, they should rejuvenate our desires to learn and grow through experiencing a variety of cultures. Instead of walling ourselves away from new experiences and people, we should travel and build bridges and form meaningful connections between others and ourselves. Studying, volunteering, and teaching abroad—these are the activities that students should engage in to transcend the vices that plague society, and to help usher in a greater sense of global humanity.

As I imagine myself a year from now, walking through the city of Oxford and making my rounds to my favorite café to write yet another soul-crushing but gripping essay, fear is not a looming presence in my mind. Rather, it’s Shakespeare and Faulkner, the new friends that I have made, and overwhelming gratitude. I never forget that the fear is there, but it sits in its rightful place in the corner of my mind, a small and meek shadow.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor