In an era of unrest, students find joy in international travel

As students across the country flee campus for winter break, many will travel home for the holidays. Instead of returning to their hometowns, some of their classmates have packed their bags in anticipation of a longer journey, opting to study abroad.

Visiting an unfamiliar corner of the world typically inspires excitement, joy and maybe a little nervousness. This year, international unrest has increased this tension. For some students, unpacking their worries is more difficult than packing their luggage.

After the devastating Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, France, the impression of safety in the Western hemisphere slipped away. Police confirmed a total of 129 fatalities and an additional 352 injuries, as initially reported in Le Monde, the French newspaper. A day after the attacks, Islamic State (ISIL) terrorists claimed responsibility for the violent action.

In the wake of catastrophe, fear gripped French citizens and visitors. The entire country was placed under a state of emergency, where security efforts increased and a temporary state of martial law was declared.

A brief overview of France’s current security measures.

The state of emergency is still in effect. French members of parliament (MPs) voted Nov. 19 to extend the national state of emergency by three months. In late December, the MPs will gather again to discuss a referendum which may lead to an additional extension of the country’s police power, according to Agence France-Presse.

France is an incredibly popular destination for traveling students. During the 2012–2013 academic year, the vast majority of Americans who participated in study abroad programs visited Europe. More than 150,000 students traveled from the United States to countries within the European Union, according to data collected by the Institute of International Education.

In recent years, more than one hundred thousand Americans have studied in Europe.

Connie Moreland, an American au pair living in France, said Paris lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. She lives with a host family on the edge of the city, helping the parents with childcare and the kids with their schoolwork, and spends her free time drinking in the country’s culture.

Working as an au pair, she said, is a “more immersive” experience than a typical study abroad trip. (Having previously studied in Chile and South Korea, international travel has become a familiar activity.) Spending more time with her host family, she said, allowed her to learn about France’s diversity.

Her first week in France, Moreland visited Normandy, stopping by the site of the historic D-Day landings. The Palace of Versailles, the city of Rouen and the Bretagne region, on the country’s northwest coast, were among the first sights she took in. With a French visa, she’s toured some of the city’s famed museums, including the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, for free.

Four months into her stay, Moreland is also more comfortable speaking with Parisians. “I can have conversations with strangers, depending on their accent or how fast they’re speaking,” she said.

The events of mid-November, however, were an unwelcome part of her visit.

“I was in Paris while it was happening,” Moreland said. “Obviously, I was not going to go on the Metro. I couldn’t get back [to the host family’s apartment] until a few hours later.”

On weekends, Paris bustles with life. Diners linger in cafés, sipping coffee and beer long after midnight, and dancers spill out of nightclubs at the first light of dawn. On the weekend following the attacks, many holed up at home. Moreland said the streets and sidewalks were somber and mostly empty. Taking a casual stroll through the city was ill-advised, though she still journeyed into the city proper to attended a language class.

A week later, she said, her shock remained. Some of her fellow au pairs put their faith in the principle of safety in numbers. A younger friend asked Moreland to wait with her for the train in the mornings, so that they could travel together.

Although she said she does not feel paranoid, and recognized that staying at home was not a viable option, others encountered feelings of fear before leaving the states. Between the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 over the Pacific Ocean, and the October 2015 bombing of a Russian Metrojet in Egypt, the safety of international airspace sparked concern, making the prospect of flying seem more nerve-racking.

“For a lot of people, I think that travel has suddenly become something terrifying and dangerous, due to the number of planes that have gone down in the past year or two, as well as the attacks in Paris,” Jessica Alford said. Alford, a Murray State student, spent the current semester studying and teaching English in Japan. She initially planned on traveling to other countries in the Southeast Asian subcontinent, but her relatives have squashed this idea.

“I’ve received countless texts from my mother begging me not to set foot in South Korea or take any planes that may fly near any active or inactive war zones,” Alford said. “I’m not as cautious as my mother, but I won’t say that I’m not a little worried.”

Both Moreland and Alford said they don’t overthink about the likelihood of violence, and both encouraged others to continue traveling.

“Don’t let it stop you,” Moreland said. “You can’t prepare for a random attack. Specifically, for [people coming to] France, now is the safest time to go.”

Moreland recently visited the renowned Galeries Lafayette to check out holiday window displays. French national police patrolled the scene, monitoring the large shopping center. During the state of emergency, the heightened police presence is a common, and somewhat comforting, sight.

Alford said the threat of terror has not diminished her enthusiasm for travel. She shared some advice for those who still have reservations, recommending a quick check of the state department website ahead of booking tickets.

Posters advertising study abroad programs line the walls of academic buildings across Murray State’s campus.

Though travelers are already placing a higher emphasis on caution, remaining open to unique and eye-opening experiences is equally important.

“[After studying abroad,] some people say they learned so much or really changed — but it’s true,” Moreland said. “I think it should be required for all students to study abroad.”

Alford agrees that traveling abroad gives students the opportunity to learn about themselves and, of course, the people they share the world with.

“Study abroad is oftentimes a once in a lifetime opportunity and in this situation, you can either choose to take a chance and go or stay home,” Alford said. “I chose not to miss out on mine.”