Otto Warmbier. This young man’s name has been in newspapers and on television screens across the nation countless of times in the past 17 months. But his death isn’t just another news article to bypass or forget about. My mission here is to raise awareness about the importance of travel safety precautions and pre-departure decisions in regards to study abroad and personal travels, for I recently returned from a study abroad trip of my own during the same stretch of time involving Otto’s homecoming from North Korea and the days preceding his tragic death.
The limits are endless when selecting a host country for travel. Well…not quite. Although it may seem adventurous to go to places deemed dangerous or mysterious, erring on the side of caution is always the best way when making plans to travel to a foreign land. Countries of or near war-torn areas such as Syria or dictatorships like North Korea should immediately raise red flags. Even areas that have recently been struck by an act of terrorism should be avoided for some time. It simply is not safe to subject yourself to such an atmosphere. We cannot control what may or may not happen, but your safety should never be traded for anything.
Informing yourself is the most responsible thing to do. Being an adult, it’s important to educate yourself on the issues not only of your home country but of those around the world. Speak to professors, advisors, your parents and others who will give you better insight into your list of preferred host countries. Chances are, they or someone they know may have traveled to these areas before or know of hotels or houses worth staying at. Ask your friends, too, for their opinions. My host country was Italy, specifically Sicily. My best friend’s fiancée is in the military; therefore, she could provide me with some advice, based on what her fiancée had experienced when he was stationed there briefly. The greater the influx of information you can have under your belt before making definite arrangements will make the experience a much smoother process.
I would say, in my opinion, the group you travel with makes or breaks the trip, in all aspects. The legitimacy of the travel organization you are considering is top priority. It may seem like everything’s peachy based upon the online video promos, etc. However, heavy research must be done beforehand. You’ll have to entrust these people with your life. If they do not meet these expectations, don’t even bother with them. For me, there was never a second when I felt uneasy or as if my safety was in jeopardy when I was abroad. My professor told us repeatedly that the well-being and safety of his crew was of the utmost importance to him at all times. He understood that we were all 20 years old or above and that we are fully capable of making our own decisions. But we were in a foreign country, and we were his responsibility. Nothing was about to happen to us under his watch.
Also, it is not wise to venture off on excursions without the company of your entire group. You are a foreigner; therefore, you are automatically more of a target for someone else’s ill intentions. “Safety in numbers” should be at the forefront of your mind.
Get yourself a group leader/tourist navigator/program director who has an established rapport with the individuals living in the area of your housing arrangements. Especially if the locals speak a different language, you’d want someone to be able to translate for you and to make you feel comfortable enough to interact properly. My professor has worked in Sicily for over a decade, and he personally knew our cook and our landlord. My point here is to find a person/persons who is seasoned enough to help you feel in good hands and to give you the best possible experience.
Traveling abroad changed me as a person, and all for the better. It is a true blessing to have such an opportunity for growth and to meet people who positively impact your life. Please always practice caution when choosing where to travel and who you travel with. You shouldn’t have to worry about anything besides immersing yourself in another culture and enjoying the brief time you have there. Before departure, remind yourself of the social norms and differences of your host country. And most importantly: safety first.