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The Death of Foreign Exchange Student Austin Bice

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Aired 3/9/11

San Diego State University students are mourning the loss of 22-year old Austin Bice. The exchange student, just weeks into his semester in Spain, was found dead on Tuesday in a river in Madrid. The death of a student overseas is the worst fear of every parent with a child in a foreign exchange program. We'll learn a little more about those programs, and how students are prepared to take care of themselves abroad.

San Diego State University students are mourning the loss of 22-year old Austin Bice. The exchange student, just weeks into his semester in Spain, was found dead on Tuesday in a river in Madrid. The death of a student overseas is the worst fear of every parent with a child in a foreign exchange program. We'll learn a little more about those programs, and how students are prepared to take care of themselves abroad.

GUEST: KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego state university students are mourning the loss of 22-year-old Austin Bice. The exchange student just weeks into his semester in Spain was found dead on Tuesday in a river in Madrid. A search had been under way for Austin Bice for over a week. Not much is known about Austin Bice's death, the investigation continues in Spain, but initially, no foul play was indicated. The death of a student over seas is the worst fear of a parent with a child in a foreign exchange program. Right now, we'll learn a little bit more about those programs and how students are prepared to take care of themselves abroad. I'd like to welcome my guest, KPBS education reporter, Ana Tintocalis. Good morning, Ana.

TINTOCALIS: Good morning, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about Austin Bice. Why was he taking this semester in Spain?

TINTOCALIS: Right, well, Austin was a 22-year-old San Diego state student. And he was a hand as much, strapping young man whose high school football coach called him a gentle giant. And he was a local boy. He graduated from Torrey Pines high school, his family lives in Carlsbad of and he was studying international business at San Diego state. And this year, he decided to take his education abroad to Madrid, Spain. And that's why he was in that country. And so by all accounts, he was just a very bright young man with a bright future ahead of him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And do we know anything about his personality? Was he very gregarious? That sort of thing.

TINTOCALIS: Well, we get a sense of his personality through what his friends have to stay here at San Diego state and in Madrid. And they described him as a friendly, outgoing guy. One student said, he was laid back, fun to be with, never really had any problems. And it seemed that Bice was just really enjoying his time in Madrid. He would post comments on his blog that he loved the night life, the food, the people. And the San Diego union tribune reports also that it wasn't unusual for Bice to just go out walking alone on the streets of Madrid. In fact, he -- it was almost like he was enchanted by doing that. He called it a glorious experience. That he had done it plenty of times, no matter the hour. So again, you could kind of get that carefree spirit, just really soaking up this international experience. And by all accounts, he never had any huge problems, it didn't seem like, with drinking. He wasn't -- it didn't sound like he was this big kind of college fraternity drunk that some people might be thinking about there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us what authorities say that the last night that Austin Bice was seen in Madrid.

TINTOCALIS: Well, Austin began studying at the university of Madrid or a university in Madrid, I should say, [CHECK] that's about two months ago. And on the night of February the 25th, he was out walking with friends, and they were on their way to a night club in Madrid, as many young kids do, and Bice was turned away from that night club because he appeared to be intoxicated. Now, there's some dispute as to whether he was drunk or not, maybe he was drugged, I think an autopsy will find that out. But either way, it seems as though his friends said goodbye to him at that point at the nightclub, and he just went walking alone by himself. And that was -- was literally the last time he was seen. Of roommates reported him missing the day later when he didn't show up. And he went missing for about a week and a half until, of course, we heard the news yesterday that his body was found in a river. The interesting thing, it was -- this river is about five blocks away from the night club that he was turned away from. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How are students at SDSU taking the news of Austin's death?

TINTOCALIS: You know, there's just a lot of shock, and a lot of grief, and a lot of disbelief. A couple of his friends have organized -- well, they did organize a candle light vigil earlier this week on medicine when his body was still missing, and they're wearing ribbons with black and red, which is the Aztec color here at San Diego state with his name on it. Flags were known at half staff, in his honor [CHECK] as to whether his parents are gonna arrange anything. They have been pretty tight lipped when it comes to the media, and they're of course devastated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ana, let's talk a minute about SDSU's foreign exchange program. How many students from SDSU take part in it?

TINTOCALIS: Well, actually, SDSU study abroad program is quite well known in the State of California. About 1400 students take their education across borders every year. It's one of the top study abroad campuses, it's ranked number one in the CSU system, California state university system, it's ranked number three among all universities in California. So this university has really prided itself on this program, and they've done a lot -- a lot of the students tend to go to western European countries. And Spain is one of the hot spots. This particular program that Austin Bice was part of was through the school of business. Of so it was actually quite a unique program in and of itself. But no doubt, you know, this tragedy does put a bit of a blemish on the university's study abroad program and its track record.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What other country it is do students study abroad in from SDSU?

TINTOCALIS: Well, like I said, they tend to gravitate toward Italy and France. They also like going to Ireland. There's a huge contingent of young people that like South America, Mexico, Brazil, those type of countries. So it's a very vibrant study ark broad program. There's an international student center here. And not only that, but we have a lot of international students coming to San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

TINTOCALIS: But -- and the program here is very, from what I understand when I talk to folks, students have to go through two orientations which cover things like safety and security. Things like making sure your host family or your host organization, whether it be an institution or university, that you let them know where you're at at all times, [CHECK] that you don't get inebriated, that you know where your surroundings are. For the most people, students have advisors when they go to the country that they will study in. And they become -- those advisors become their point of contact. But at the same time, these students are largely responsible for their own safety. A campus official here at San Diego state though acknowledged that because going out and drinking and meeting new people is sometimes the cultural norms in different countries that some of these host organizations now are trying to step up their efforts to allow for greater student super vision. But that's still kind of hit and mis.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with KPBS education reporter, Ana Tintocalis. We're talking about SDSU's study abroad program. And in relationship to the tragic death of 22-year-old Austin Bice, San Diego state university student who was studying in Madrid, and who went missing. The search was under way for about ten days, then his body was found in a river in Madrid just this last Tuesday. How long are students abroad, Ana? How long does the program last.

TINTOCALIS: Well, you know, it varies of a lot of them are short term study abroad programs so we're talking maybe six months. Of maybe even less than that. It's pretty much the equivalent to an academic semester. So that's basically a lot of the programs fall along that time frame. But there are more extended study abroad programs for a year or more. And it also depends, you know, in terms of student super vision. You get more of that if you're maybe in a dorm setting with other students, as in the case of Austin Bice, it was his roommates who noticed he was missing. But a lot of students also live with families, in host families that -- you know, they become a surrogate family, but at the same time, they don't have all the kind of parental rules surrounding these young kids. And a lot of these young kids are 16 -- or not 16, but 18, 19, 20, 22-year-old kids, young adults now. And so they feel like they do have a right to kind of experience life and that they don't necessarily need to check in with someone all the time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, what's the purpose of taking a semester in a foreign country?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it's just a huge enriching experience, which is why so many students are -- if they do have the money, they can do it. Usually it helps to broaden their horizons, understand different cultures and people, in connection with whatever they're studying, a lot of students as in the case of Austin Bice, he was studying international business, what better way to do that than to actually pick up on the language and the cultural norms and the people and make connections in another country? And he was studying international business. And it's just another supplement to what you're already studying, college is already a pretty amazing experience, but you take that one step further and you do that in another country, and it's just something that you will never forget in your lifetime. And for the most part, I must say, by and large, this is such a tragic incident, but by and large most students come back without any problems, just great memories of so I'd just put that out there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We, I believe, have a caller on the line now, Chris -- I'm sorry, [CHECK] is calling us Mira Mesa. Good morning, Danny and welcome it These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hi, Danny.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I just wanted to state that the reflection on the program, it's a terrible incident what happened with this student, and he just didn't use good common sense that students here in the United States don't use. And I don't think it's any reflection on the program. It's just a bad decision by a young student and an unfortunate consequence. And you know, let it be a lesson that these are the things that happen when people go out by themselves drink too much or use drugs or anything, this is what can happen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Danny, have you ever studied abroad?

NEW SPEAKER: No, not at all. I've travelled ark broad. But nothing like this. You know, we have neighbors their kids have gone over seas, and they had good experiences. But again, you have to use common sense of just like just like the people going across the border to Tijuana, people have had incidents, and lives have been lost. And it's just an unfortunate incident, but I don't think it's a reflection on the exchange program in San Diego state or any other.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Danny thank you so much for the call. I think it's important for us to actually point out very clearly that at this point, we really don't know what happened to Austin Bice.

TINTOCALIS: We don't. Spanish police say -- you know, Spanish police say everything points to a possible accident, that he fell into the river. And they say like you had mentioned, there's no obvious sign was foul play. Of his body was discovered in a shallow river in Madrid, I don't know if we kind of pointed that out that this river borders a pedestrian walk way and park. And some locals say it's -- some locals at the same time say it's very hard to understand exactly how someone would fall into that, because there's a three-foot wide stone wall that separates the walk way from the river, and then there's a low railing on top, but if you do get past those barriers, it leads to these deep locks in the river way, which is basically these concrete containers within the river. And those walls are even steeper, there's like 30-foot drops. So we don't know, and actually, the family is gonna be giving a statement at 10:00 o'clock this morning. So in a few minutes here. And they might shed more light on what happened of maybe not, maybe they'll just thank everyone for their prayers and wishes. But this is still something that's still unfolding in terms of the investigation. And the autopsy will give us a lot more answers, hopefully.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ana, you made the point that this is actually a very safe program. Have there been any other deaths or injuries reported in other kids in local exchange programs?

TINTOCALIS: Actually, yeah, in talking [CHECK] this isn't the first time a student has died over seas of it is the most tragic in terms he had gone missing for a week and a half, and then his body turned up in a riff. But about ten years ago, there was a student studying abroad in east Asia, and she drowned in an accident, in a drowning accident. And so there are these cases. And you hear them across country, a student goes away, they might not know the cultural or the country laws of a certain place, and they get caught up in a situation or it's just a pure accident. But these are the concerns of when young people go studying abroad, and it does serve as a wake up call to students, and over seas advisors to remind them that this is not all fun and game games, that you really have to take important steps to protect your safety, and really be aware of your surroundings and a new environment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK] saver if he had been staying with a family. Have you heard anything like that?

TINTOCALIS: I haven't heard anything like that. I mean, in talking about this story with some people, you know, a lot of question marks come up, like, well, why didn't his friends do anything? Why didn't at least one of them stay behind to, like, walk with him if he was just gonna head back home? In a family situation, maybe there's more of a parental care, you know, seeing him as -- almost as a son. So maybe there would have been more caution. But you know, you just never know.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we'll look forward -- at least pay great attention to that statement coming out this morning from Austin Bice's parents. Ana thank you so much for speaking with us.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter, Ana Tintocalis. Of and if you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Stay with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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