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War in Kenya Repels U.S. Study-Abroad Programs

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The violence that erupted in Kenya after its presidential election in December is having a spillover effect here in the United States. Many colleges are cancelling their Kenya study abroad programs for the spring, though at least two have decided to send students anyway.

Matt Hackworth reports from North Brunswick, New Jersey, on how university officials are trying to balance student safety with their desire to study overseas.

MATT HACKWORTH: Princeton University junior Lauren Bartholomew is supposed to be in the African bush studying ecology at Kenya's empower research center. Instead, this aspiring doctor is taking a break in a coffee shop near campus lamenting that the whole trip was cancelled.

Ms. LAUREN BARTHOLOMEW (Student, Princeton University): My dad had been uneasy about me going to Kenya the whole time even before everything started to happen. I was sitting across the kitchen table with my dad, like, the news came on and like at the same time that we were sitting there and I just had, like, oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: Totally see the look on his face.

HACKWORTH: So was he relieved to find out that you aren't going?

Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: I'm sure he probably was relieved.

HACKWORTH: It's not just the scrutiny of worried parents forcing colleges to evaluate risks. Lawsuits are rare but schools are still cautious. Princeton hired a security consultant when it set up its Kenya program several years ago.

Professor Daniel Rubenstein said he cancelled the trip once Kenya's security problem eclipsed all possible precautions.

Professor DANIEL RUBENSTEIN (Chairman, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University): I was not particularly concerned when there was troubles after the elections because sort of the rules that we have is we don't stay in Nairobi. We don't stay in any big cities. We stay outside cities. We stay in gated hotels. We fly instead of drive whenever we can. So we minimize risks. With the uncertainty about the future, I felt we really couldn't put the students in harm's way.

HACKWORTH: More U.S. students are traveling the world now than ever before. Participation in study abroad programs has shot up in more than 150 percent in the last decade and it's not just to go to Europe anymore.

Dr. STEVEN FERST (Director, Rutgers University Study Abroad, Rutgers University): Students certainly are spreading out a lot more in their choice of destination.

HACKWORTH: Study abroad administrators like Steven Ferst at Rutgers University say student embrace of nontraditional destinations makes their job more challenging. He scours world news reports almost like an intelligence analyst, searching out spots where students may meet trouble. Ferst says a warning from the U.S. State Department isn't enough to cancel a program because the official advice has grown increasingly vague.

Dr. FERST: At time they'll use words like we recommend that Americans defer travel. Other times you've have that they recommend they consider carefully their travel before going. So just by saying a State Department warning, it's a little too cut and dry. We really need to dissect what is being said in it.

Mr. HACKWORTH: The University of Minnesota examined the warnings and decided to go ahead with its program in Nairobi, and American University officials kept open their program as well based on advice from students and staff already in Kenya.

But student Lauren Bartholomew says she thinks Princeton made the right decision to cancel its program. Instead, Lauren will have the out-of-the-ordinary study abroad experience she searched for this semester in another location that is relatively stable for the moment, studying ecology in Panama.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Hackworth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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