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Women Studying Abroad: Preparation and Support

Woman traveling and studying solo

“As a 20-year-old college student preparing myself for a year abroad in the South of France, I thought that I had everything I would possibly need. My bags were methodically packed and I thoroughly prepared myself according to the counsel of friends and family. But one vital component that no one had advised me about, something I could never fit into my suitcase, was what life would be like as a woman living in Europe.”

These could have been my words almost 15 years ago before I went to off to study abroad, also in the South of France. I was totally unprepared for being harassed, followed, propositioned, and even touched. Being a woman had a tremendous impact on my experience abroad. Although I matured and became more assertive and self-reliant, I nevertheless wish that I had had some kind of preparation and an opportunity to discuss my feelings during and after the program.

I do not want to scare women away from going abroad but rather to help them be knowledgeable, prepared, and safe. Traveling alone provides insights into the foreign culture that cannot be gained when traveling with a companion. It is a confidence builder and gives the traveler the freedom to plan what she really wants to do and see. It promotes language learning and creates opportunities to meet more people from the host country and other travelers. Women should have, and do have, the opportunity to experience this. In fact, in some cultures, being a woman may actually be advantageous. A woman might have access to women’s society and friendship—something denied to men in Islamic cultures, for example.

Study Abroad: Preparation and Support

I believe that women going abroad (especially for the first time) need three things: good preparation before going, a forum for discussing their feelings while abroad, and a way to process their experience upon reentry. The initial preparation is vital, as women who do not have coping skills for dealing with harassment may put up emotional barriers, which can result in difficulty accepting the culture and integrating into it.

The most effective preparation involves contacting returned students, Hearing from their peers what it is really like cuts the “I can take care of myself” attitude. Returnees can and should attend any orientation session for women that you plan. Talking about their fears and expectations is a good way to get the discussion going. Students then feel free to ask about all kinds of issues-such as women’s health, dating, or the availability of tampons. Women student advisers in your office should be trained and encouraged to talk to with the women who are contemplating going abroad. Another resource that you can make available is written accounts. I have a notebook of one-page personal descriptions of what it was like to be a woman abroad. I encourage every woman who comes in to write something in this notebook.

Giving these recently returned women a chance to be mentors and openly discuss their personal experiences in a meaningful way, to help others have a positive experience, is an important part of their own reentry. I have been repeatedly thanked by students for having provided them the opportunity to talk about their time abroad. Make sure that any evaluations you want filled out include specific questions for women. You may be surprised at what comes out.

Supporting women going abroad is more difficult. On-site support is not always available. When it is, it should include a woman native to the country as a resource (preferably someone close to college age) as well as some group meeting so that the women can compare notes. If the students are living with families these host families should be given some kind of direction or orientation with respect to cross-cultural women’s issues. Women’s centers exist in many countries and can be found online, often on expatriate websites. When on-site support is unavailable women should be encouraged to keep a journal, blog, or connect via social networking. Simply expressing yourself in writing can be enormously cathartic.

Women Student Comments

Reading student comments online can be eye-opening, but some remarks should be taken with a grain of salt. Someone who said she never had any problems at all was probably extremely lucky or didn’t consider cat-calling to be a problem, and someone who says “never travel alone” either had really bad luck or had a low threshold for harassment. There is a difference between being in actual physical danger and being annoyed, frustrated, or angry. And what we as Americans consider harassment may not be considered so in another culture.

Europe. Most women found that being in Southern Europe was much more difficult that in Northern Europe. “I traveled alone for two weeks. It was great to be completely independent.” “Women alone are not safe from harassment. Pretend you don’t hear. Pretend you are preoccupied.” “Ignore cat callers and always be aware of the people around you. Be confident.” “Dress conservatively and never sit in empty areas (empty train cars, etc).”

Latin America. Cat-calling seems to be the most common problem in Latin America. “Women should be prepared for comments and whistles from Latin American men.” “No problem traveling alone in Guatemala.” “I traveled alone in Mexico and felt very comfortable doing so.” “Unfortunately Central America is not a safe place for women who are not accompanied by males, even in groups. Be cautious and avoid walking alone. Never walk alone at night.” “Do not go out alone at night in Brazil.”

Asia. Problems vary greatly from country to country so inform yourself before you go. “In general, China is safe for women. You do get stared at a lot though.” “Southeast Asia really was quite safe. Women need to prepare (emotionally) for being in Muslim societies and realize that any skin you expose will be reacted to like a beacon of light.” “Women in India should realize that it is not safe to travel or go around the city alone, especially if they look non-Indian. Never wear shorts.”

Africa. North Africa seems to be more dangerous and many women warn us against being in Morocco or Tunisia alone, whereas in Sub-Sahara Africa the problem seems to be more one of theft. “I would not discourage solo travelers if they are relatively self-reliant. “I have lived, worked, conducted research, and traveled in North, Central and East Africa with few problems. Dress conservatively—no revealing clothing. Observe the norms of that culture. Don’t look lost in the street. Go inside a shop and ask for directions. In East and Central Africa, I never felt physically threatened, but did have to be careful of thieves.” “Being in Egypt for two months was a big challenge and frustrating. There is a lot of harassment on the streets—stares, whistles, calls. I went to Alexandria alone and walked alone in the streets at night. Safer there than here. You should be confident, on guard at all times. Be assertive. Some men don’t take you seriously.”

Safety Tips

The most obvious of course is to be aware and alert. Know your surroundings if at all possible. Have a map. When possible ask another woman for directions. Act like you know where you are going even when you don’t. Project a confident attitude. Don’t make eye contact—in many cultures this is considered an invitation. Know how the phones work in whatever country you are in and be prepared to use them. If you need a phone card, buy one. Have some extra money for a more expensive hotel, an upgrade to first-class on a train, or a taxi to get you out of a bad area of town. Know what the standard dress for women is and dress accordingly. Don’t wear shorts unless local women do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to make a scene.

Women Student Resources

Journeywoman is an online travel resource just for women by women.

Women-geared websites provide many more options, as well as women like Beth Whitman, who seems to have done it all and hosts a great site called WanderlustandLipstick.

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Women Travel

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