The U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert on Oct. 3 notifying American travelers of potential terrorist attacks in Europe, where six of the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) centers are located.
The alert, which will be in effect until Jan. 31, 2011, warned of possible attacks in tourist areas and transportation infrastructure in large European cities, believed to be coordinated by al-Qaida and its affiliates. The broad alert encompasses BOSP locations in Berlin, Florence, Madrid, Moscow, Paris and Oxford.
The alert did not mention specific cities; counterterrorism officials this month were assessing possible threats against Britain, France and Germany, The New York Times reported.
Travel alerts are less severe than travel warnings–when a warning is issued, the Department of State generally advises Americans to avoid visiting the country the warning concerns. Travel alerts, on the other hand, are usually issued in response to short-term conditions and instead advise that citizens exercise particular vigilance while traveling.
The BOSP administration reacted promptly when the alert was released.
“We drafted a memo to the students, advising them to look carefully at the travel warning, give overseas staff their contact information and alert program staff of weekend plans,” said Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director Irene Kennedy. “We also emphasize that they maintain regular contact with their families.”
Travel alerts and warnings are issued fairly regularly, and the BOSP has an established protocol in place to respond accordingly. A recent Community Health Program in Oaxaca, Mexico was cancelled because of a government-issued warning that included the entire nation.
“Stanford actually has a policy, issued by the provost, that we do not send students to countries with travel warnings,” Kennedy said. “A travel warning while the quarter is underway, depending on the situation, could require us to evacuate students.”
Kennedy said that some parents of BOSP students contacted the program asking what emergency plans were in place, but, according to Kennedy, “no parents or students requested to leave Europe.”
BOSP students spending fall quarter in Europe have reported virtually no effect of the warning on daily life.
“I am a little more aware of my surroundings, but other than that, I don’t think much has changed,” Julia Kayser ’11 wrote in an e-mail from Paris. “Fear is exactly what terrorists aim to inspire, so I think an even-keeled response is the best we can do.”
Kayser said the atmosphere among students had not changed since before the alert, and her group’s BOSP weekend trip was not rescheduled in the weekend following the alert’s release.
Additionally, the vagueness of the alert, such as a lack of specific locations or time periods, may have deflated the sense of severity it inspired among students.
“The idea that something might happen at some point somewhere in Europe isn’t going to make most people too worried,” Aisha Ansano ’12 said from Oxford. “Accidents and other unpredictable things happen all the time, but that doesn’t stop people from travelling,”
While she did not feel immediately at risk, Ansano felt that the BOSP responded appropriately to the alert.
“I think it’s probably the right amount,” Ansano said. “It might seem a little excessive, but when you think about the fact that they’re partially responsible for us on Stanford’s behalf, it seems like a good idea to go a little beyond where they have to just in case it’s necessary.”
BOSP has prepared for the possibility of a greater security threat as well. A global response team is ready at all times to discuss evacuation plans if necessary.
Discussions of evacuation took place earlier this year when an earthquake struck on Feb. 27 in Santiago, Chile, where the BOSP has a location. The BOSP administration kept in close contact to ensure the safety of the students, all of whom desired to stay in Chile and aid in the recovery process.
As the status of the alert has not changed since it was issued, the BOSP students in Europe have not allowed fear to interrupt their experiences.
“Worrying about the terrorist attacks isn’t going to change the statistical likelihood of their occurrence, so I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought,” Kayser said.