As the U.S. Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to postpone travel to Japan and asks those in Japan to consider departing, colleges and universities across the U.S. are advising or requiring students participating in study abroad programs in Japan to return home.
In response to the catastrophic situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulting from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, the State Department is recommending that U.S. citizens located within 50 miles of the power plant evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.
Commercial flights have resumed at all airports that were closed by the earthquake except for Sendai Airport, and the State Department is currently working to assist U.S. citizens to depart from affected areas. Any American in Japan can take advantage of commercial U.S. flights, but private citizens would be expected to reimburse the government for the expense, explains the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
International academic programs have soared in popularity over the past three decades. According to the Institute of International Education, more than a quarter-million American college students study abroad each year, up substantially from 62,000 in the late 1980s. Educators say that given those figures, troubles have been relatively rare, reports the New York Times. Recent “troubles” include episodes of political unrest, drug related violence, and now horrific natural disasters.
The University of Pittsburgh suspended its study abroad program in Japan on March 18. “They are reimbursing us for the plane tickets and may or may not be able to reimburse us for the term. But one step at a time,” 24-year-old University of Pittsburgh student Josie Norton, a studio arts and Japanese language major, wrote in an e-mail to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Norton was on a flight from Australia to Narita, Japan on March 11 when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit near Sendai.
About 30 American students attending Temple University’s Japan campus flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong on March 20 on a charter flight that Temple arranged through International SOS, the largest medical assistance company in the world. Hillel Hoffman, Temple’s spokesperson in Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that International SOS was now working with the students to arrange flights from Hong Kong to their home destinations.
On March 17, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri ordered students studying in Japan to return home. The universities are offering financial assistance to help students evacuate. “University policy does not permit study abroad programs to operate in countries where State Department travel warnings have been issued,” Jill Jess, a Kansas spokeswoman, explained to the Kansas City Star.
California’s two public university systems, the University of California and Cal State, are also pulling their students out of Japan due to tsunami-related problems and fears about radiation dangers, reports the Los Angeles Times. In a letter to the students, Jean-Xavier Guinard, executive director of UC’s education abroad programs, wrote “This decision was not taken lightly and it is based on the need to ensure your safety, our first and foremost concern.”
“Leaving our students in this situation is not a risk I am willing to take,” Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed said in a memo sent to all campuses.
Many other U.S. colleges are following suit, including the University of Minnesota, which had seven students studying in the Tokyo area, and the University of South Florida, which had six students studying in central Japan.
Because Japan uses a different academic calendar than the U.S., many American college students are currently scheduled to leave for spring study abroad programs. The students risk losing academic credit by cancelling their trips because their home campuses are nearly halfway into the spring semester, but fear of the unknown is causing many students to have second thoughts about leaving.
Queens resident and Hamilton College student Celia Yu is one of four students at her school that is scheduled to depart for Japan on March 28. As of the middle of last week, the program’s sponsor, the non-profit Council on International Educational Exchange, said that plans to travel to Japan were still on track.
Yu tells the New York Times that she feels pressure from her parents and friends to stay home, yet wants to graduate with her class—withdrawing from the study abroad program could change her graduation date. “The only problem is the radiation and how the wind is going to blow it,” she said. “I’m very worried, but I trust my program. I don’t think they would let us go if there’s anything that would put us in harm.”
“Past experience has shown that study-abroad programs can be reinstated relatively quickly, and student enrollments can resume or even surpass previous levels,” Allan E. Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education, reminded the newspaper.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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