Take risks abroad

Stephanie Eisner

It’s 4 p.m. in Madrid, and you’re halfway into your first real conversation in Spanish with a couple you think just may have taken you for a local. They invite you back to their apartment to try some of their famous paella, and you’re about to accept — but then you freeze. You recall scenes from the movie “Taken” and the show “Criminal Minds,” and you remember that your group of fellow American travelers are all back at the hostel. This couple seems friendly enough, but then again, isn’t that always how the story starts? Your mind rushes to the travel advisory warnings you scanned while on the plane, and you clutch your purse a little tighter. If you find yourself in this position while travelling this summer, don’t be rash, but take chances more often than you decline them. A little risk taken while studying abroad is a smart investment.

Sure, at times it may seem like the stakes are higher while you travel. Comparatively, however, you may be safer away from home than you think. In the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula, a region of that country perceived as highly dangerous, the homicide rate is approximately 1.4 times lower than it is in Austin. Using data collected from the World Health Organization and national statistics, opentravel.com revealed the top 10 safest destinations to travel — and no U.S. cities made the cut. Three of the cities that did were in Europe (specifically, in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Ireland), the continent most popular among UT students studying abroad. It is always smart to be aware of the danger of your surroundings. Don’t assume, however, that you will be at a greater risk just because  you leave the United States.

Sometimes, the best tool you could have to combat fear abroad is the experience of a person you trust. Connecting with someone who has been to the country you plan on visiting is as easy as signing up online for an appointment with UT’s own Study Abroad Office. If you would like to talk more casually with a student, you can ask to chat with a student mentor. 

Rhonda Waller, the study abroad advisor assigned to students interested in travelling to the Nordic countries, Eastern Europe and some European countries shared with me that the comments she hears most from students returning from their travels was that they “wish [they] would have made more of an effort to make friends in the host culture” and “wish [they] would have taken the opportunity to practice [their] language skills more.” 

When I was in Bangladesh for an internship, I made friends with my Bengali translator. Because of that bond, I was able to attend a family wedding, visit her mother’s rural village in the North and cook for her brother with her in the traditional style (which included using a sickle-shaped knife on the ground). Many of those excursions required me to trust strangers, take unofficial vehicles, swallow some pride and yes, even drink unfiltered water to be polite. In exchange for a little discomfort, I earned a glimpse into the real Bangladesh.

You may hear that studying abroad is the “chance of a lifetime.” It will only be so if you remember that being cautious is good, but being stunted by fear is not. If you are offered a ride on a back of a motorcycle this summer while abroad, let go of those inhibitions and grab hold of that waist. Keep your pepper spray and your wits about you, but don’t prevent yourself from having the greatest adventure of your life.

Eisner is a public health sophomore from The Woodlands.