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Learning on the Edge

Campus | February 3, 2014

Where does Tufts draw the line between education and safety?

On December 27th, a bomb detonated in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, killing high profile politician Mohamad Chatah and injuring over 70 people. Shortly after, a Tufts organization known as EPIIC, Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship, made the decision to cancel its highly anticipated trip to Lebanon because of safety concerns. While this was an abrupt decision, it wasn’t without precedent. EPIIC falls under the expansive umbrella of the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL). The IGL prides itself on its wide variety of immersive student programs that promote education and leadership abroad, including programs in high-risk areas like Lebanon where political unrest and growing social movements abound. Their mission statement highlights the importance of viewing and dealing with international conflict effectively and morally:

“We develop new generations of critical thinkers for effective and ethical leadership who are able to comprehend and deal with complexity, to bridge cultural and political differences, and to engage as responsible global citizens in anticipating and confronting the world’s most pressing problems.”

Sometimes, however, bridging this gap between differences comes with serious risk. EPIIC student and Tufts senior Sarah Butterfield, who is familiar with risky work environments, claims, “You can’t go looking for trouble.”, Butterfield was one of two students forced to evacuate Cairo, Egypt, in July of 2013. Before her evacuation, she had been studying abroad in Cairo for the year on her own—separate from any of Tufts’ approved programs. “It was dangerous from the beginning,” Butterfield reflects. But given her familiarity with Cairo, the Arabic language, and her goals of researching the Muslim Brotherhood, she felt confident in her endeavors. However, after escalating protests during her trip, Butterfield received multiple emails from International SOS, a resource that alerts travelers of potential risks while abroad, urging her to leave. And, as the violent protests and persistent emails continued, Butterfield got a call from Tufts directly. “They said that I was mandated by the US State Department to evacuate.” Isabel Weiner, another Tufts student, had moved from a study abroad program in Alexandria to an internship in Cairo, and found herself in the same situation as Butterfield. Weiner kept journal entries of her experience, and wrote about the “unsettling” trials of leaving: “I opened Gmail after dinner and immediately went into a state of panic. I was being moved to a hotel the next day and then being taken to the airport at the crack of dawn on Friday morning. I began to cry.” And, within 24 hours, Butterfield and Weiner’s time in Cairo was cut short.

So where is the line drawn between educational opportunity and security? For Butterfield, the limit echoes the mission of the IGL: “For me the line is that, if you choose to go on one of these trips, you have to be self-aware enough to know the dangers of the country. You can’t go there and think, ‘I came here for adventure.’ Or ‘Oh, these protests are really cool,’ which I found a lot of people doing.” Butterfield sees the value in high-risk learning, but also knows when to draw the line. Weiner notes, “An important thing, wherever you go in the world, is to separate your sense of adventure from being unsafe […] being able to make smart decisions when you’re in a high-risk situation.”

Bahar Ostadan, also in EPIIC, traveled to Tunisia over the winter break without interruption. Along with another classmate, Ostadan conducted interviews with student activists, NGO leaders, and government officials about the role of youth in strengthening civil society during the transitional government’s constitution writing process. Ostadan accredits the IGL for her ability to do so without fear: “I felt very confident knowing that the IGL’s in-country contacts helped gauge the potential risks in a given location.” After completing the mandatory six-hours of pre-departure security briefings, which educated Ostadan and her peers on everything from “drinking water precautions to registering for the State Department’s SOS Emergency Evacuation Service,” Ostadan felt prepared for her journey abroad. For Ostadan, personal safety and travel are about examining the facts. “As potential travelers evaluate their safety, it is equally important to evaluate their sources of concern. Are people being cautioned against traveling to certain countries for the right reasons? For example, while the U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings against Americans visiting Tunisia, they should be taken with large buckets of salt. I have been to many countries on the State Department’s watch list, often feeling safer than I do in San Francisco.”

At what point should a region be labeled too dangerous to travel? At what point does the educational benefit outweigh the potential danger? These are questions that the IGL deals with each day to provide students with a safety net while working in the field.

Sherman Teichman, the founding director of the IGL, emphasized the sense of duty that must come with the opportunity to partake in this level of high-risk travel. “Part of leadership is preparing students,” he says. “If you’re at Tufts, you represent the thin intellectual ozone layer of the world by the mere dint of the fact that you have your health, your sight, you have literacy, you have the means to be here. You are unbelievably privileged. The question is what you do with the privilege.” Teichman comments on the “careful and calibrated cost-benefit analysis” that the program must use to conceptualize which programs make sense and which do not. Lengthy security briefings, intensive literature, and hefty writing requirements make up the backbone of the IGL’s thorough preparation for students going abroad. However, above all, Teichman says, “We have to rely upon [the students’] maturity; we have to rely upon their insights and their ability to truly comprehend the sensitive environments to which they go.” As a result, programs like EPIIC foster an honest sense of global citizenship at Tufts, as they show students how to live, learn, and lead in the worldwide community that is often wrought with conflict. According to Teichman, “What’s palpable is really how they change their ideas … It’s amazing how mature our students can get.”

For students like Ostadan, Butterfield, and Weiner, maturity aligns with determination. After being evacuated in 2013, Butterfield and Weiner returned to Cairo in December to continue their research, which ranged from political interviews to public health analysis. Along with over 40 other IGL students venturing into the Middle East, they traveled with specific goals in mind: original research and illuminating discovery.

For the IGL, participating students, and Tufts as a whole, the delicate line between education and safety is unpredictable—contingent on the political and social climate of the country. And, as the students travelling to Lebanon understand, socio-political climates can change in an instant. For others, working to get through the precautionary hoops of the IGL is worth everything: “There is no doubt,” Ostadan says, “that the best lessons exist in the places you least expect.”