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Safety Advice for Students Studying Abroad

Updated on July 3, 2011

In the second year of university, I had the most awesome experience of my life studying in California as an exchange student. It was my first time away from home, and I totally loved every moment of it. Of course, it was not always smooth sailing and easy being so far away from everything that was familiar, but I loved being there so much it was heart wrenching when I had to go back home.

Are you a student preparing to study abroad? Are you a parent with a child studying abroad? I hope this hub will give you some safety tips so that your experience studying abroad will be just as awesome as mine.

Here are some tips to BE SAFE

  • Prepare yourself mentally for the change in environment

If you come from a city, chances are that you might head home from school at night or even close to midnight without any concerns about safety. In urban places, the city lights and street lights are always on, and we have so much light pollution we don't see the stars.

However, overseas in places like the US, where campuses are spread out over vast spaces, at night there is often insufficient lighting; the roads might be pitch black in some parts of the campus - and as an exchange student this might give you a nasty surprise.. and you really don't want to see stars for the wrong reason.

I remember my first night on campus, I did not know that the sky would turn dark so early. As a good student keen to explore the campus, I walked to the library to borrow a book but when I came out it was dark. The path was dimly lit and I was not thrilled. Where I came from, people were always in the library till really late, and it was not unusual to find people in school around midnight (yes, even in the first week of school). What ought to have been a cool adventure turned out to be quite a scary walk through the forested paths in school, praying that nothing would happen to me. Thank God I finally found my way out back into civilization. But it was quite a traumatic night, and I remember thinking to myself that even if I had screamed, there was no one around to help me.

  • Be extremely aware, that in many places, when it gets dark, it gets DARK. pitch black.

I remember the first time I went into my room, I saw a torch on the table. A torch? What an interesting welcome gift. But people did advice me to bring a torch. I thought it was rather absurd advice, but after what happened to me that dark night, and after looking around, I learned that there was much value in bringing a torch - as people would often shine on the ground when they walked.

This is also helpful if you are in a suburban area where the ground is not all even. If you come from urban areas where stilettos are sold in shops, it is likely that you have even, marble, concrete, tiled, smooth floors to walk on. However, bear in mind that overseas, this is not always the case, so as you enjoy the natural beauty around you, look at the ground.

  • Get local advice about the crime patterns in the areas that you are

When I was overseas, I learned that there was gang activity in some of the areas, especially at night. This is not to scare you, but to make you aware that these activities do occur, especially if you come from a place with low crime. What I learned is that these gangs had colors associated with them. eg. Gang A wore purple shirts, while Gang B wore green. I learned that if I had to come back late from school, I should avoid wearing purple or green, in order to protect myself.

Another piece of advice that might be useful is to learn what the common types of crimes locals faced in that area, and how to prevent yourself from falling prey.

  • Get acquainted with the escort service, or night rider buses

Many schools have an escort service for students at night, and night buses that you can call if you need transport home. Do not take things lightly, especially if you are a female student. Save the contact numbers of these services in your phone. A well-meaning bus driver gave my friends and I this advice when he realized it was our first time taking the local bus. Indeed it is so true, you'll never know when you might be stuck on campus without transport, so you should save these numbers on your phone, just in case you need it, or see someone who needs it.

Although I didn't need to use these services, my friends highly recommend and advice this (from their experience). I had a friend who lived one minute from campus, so she decided one night (yes, it was still early, although dark already) to walk home. Little did she expect to be harassed by someone on her way home. This person was shouting sexual vulgarities into her ear, and following her each step. It was totally terrifying. Thankfully, someone appeared from the office below her apartment and she ran for help. Apparently, the next day, a similar incident happened to another girl who was followed all the way back to her apartment.

Experiences like these can totally ruin your experience of living abroad. Although walking home might take 1 minute, and taking the escort service might take 1 hour, saving time might result in risking your safety and losing something precious, like your money, or even your life. It is not worth the gamble.

  • Learn the patterns of behavior from the locals

Do people carry pepper sprays? Do they carry pocket alarms? Some of these patterns of defensive behavior might seem rather outrageous, weird, unnecessary to some, especially if you are unfamiliar with the culture. But if you behave too differently, you stick out as a vulnerable target to those who might have ill-intentions. Do make an effort to protect yourself.

Very often, in the welcome packages, schools will have information on how to protect yourself, and where to go for help if you are assaulted. Take time to read this information, and don't dismiss it.

Another tip that I learned was to always have my key in my hand ready when I walk home. Sometimes, you might have a real metal key, or sometimes I card that you swipe to open the door. Whatever the form your key takes, it might save you precious seconds if you have it already in your hand if you are running away from danger (imagine fiddling around your bag just to find it?). Also, if you need to defend yourself, most keys are sharp enough to inflict some pain.

Do you have other interesting tips for people who are looking to study abroad? Leave them in the comments!


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    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 6 years ago from Oklahoma

      Yes, we call them flashlights here and it's not uncommon for young women to carry pepper spray on a key chain. We do have wide open spaces with little lighting so you must be aware of these things.

      Great article. We don't realize the differences between home and new places. Talking to other people who have gone to school in those areas would be helpful. Perhaps there are forums online for such information.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hey Ben!

      LA is a beautiful place, and Prague too! It isn't unusual for torches to be the norm in places like Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and my friends in other parts of the US also were not surprised about it. You are right, flashlight is what I was referring to. =) I hope you get to go abroad, it is such a once in a lifetime experience!

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Great advice! I've been thinking about possibly studying abroad in Prague, as the writing majors are offered a chance to visit there each year, but I may just settle on L.A. Just curious, where in California were you where a torch was the norm? I'm assuming "torch" is simply another word for "flashlight"?