MINNEAPOLIS — American universities send tens of thousands of students to study abroad every year, thrusting them into one of the most exciting periods of their lives with a heavy dose of maternal advice: Mix with the locals, but be careful. Don't get in any tight spots. Avoid protests.
It's practical guidance that can be forgotten in the heady political ferment in countries like Egypt, where three American students were recently arrested near demonstrations at Tahrir Square.
The Americans made it safely home, but only after an ordeal they said lasted several days and included being struck, forced to lie for hours in the dark and threatened with guns. It's an experience schools and other students say they try very hard to avoid, balancing personal safety against the desire to engage with the culture that drew them in the first place.
Wittney Dorn, 20, from Appleton, Wis., said she traveled to Egypt because she wanted to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. In an email Tuesday, the political science major wrote of "the beautiful change" she is seeing as her Egyptian classmates talk about voting for the first time. She said she could understand the urge to get nearer the protests.
"I think the temptation is there, to wrap up in a keffiyeh and try to look like any other Egyptian revolutionary, to feel a little exhilaration from a kind of danger you don't get in America," Dorn wrote.
But she said she wouldn't be doing that. More than 40 protesters were killed, mostly in Cairo, during clashes with police last week and nearly 900 more died in the uprising earlier this year that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power.
"It's not a brilliant idea to go exploring an area where people are being killed, despite how tempting it may be to watch history unfold before one's eyes," wrote Dorn, a student from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
A survey earlier this month from the nonprofit Institute of International Education found more than 270,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2009-10 school year, up about 4 percent from a year earlier. The great majority went to western Europe: Britain, Italy, Spain and France. But the survey found increasing numbers in less traditional destinations; Egypt hosted 1,923 Americans, up 8 percent.
"A lot of students are trying to find places that will help them understand the emerging world," said Peggy Blumenthal, who oversees research at the institute. They are preparing for careers in public health, the sciences and national security, for example, she said.
Many universities and study abroad program coordinators have been trying to prod students out of what can become a comfort zone of huddling with their fellow Americans. The push to engage can be broadening in a "safe" country; in a country with a suddenly dicey political situation, it can be hazardous.
Blumenthal said universities give students traveling abroad a fairly standard list of do's and don'ts, including blending in with the locals, obeying local laws and customs and staying sober. Students should avoid large crowds, seedy areas and steer clear of political events, she said.
"Really, these are not new, these guidelines, but they are even more vigorously stressed now," she said.
Derrik Sweeney, one of the three Americans arrested Nov. 20, said he had heard just such cautions from the American University and the U.S. State Department. He went to demonstrations anyway – including one in early September and one the Friday before he was arrested.
"I value democracy and liberty, so I wanted to go to those protests more to witness them and to see them than to participate in them," said Sweeney, a student at Georgetown. "I wanted to see history being made."
Sweeney, 19, of Jefferson City, Mo., was arrested along with Luke Gates, 21, who attends Indiana University and is from Bloomington, Ind., and Gregory Porter, 19, who studies at Drexel University and is from Glenside, Pa.
Egyptian officials said they arrested the students on the roof of a university building and accused them of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters. Sweeney said it didn't happen that way; he said he and the other Americans were with a group of protesters on the street near the Interior Ministry and fled when police dispersed the crowd.
Sweeney said he thought he could recognize danger and leave. He acknowledged it "seems kind of silly" now that he didn't stay away, but he said he doesn't regret it.
"I would have regretted it if I had gone to Egypt and never had gone to a protest," he said.
Georgetown hasn't pulled its other students out of Cairo because the U.S. State Department hasn't recommended it, spokeswoman Stacy Kerr said, but it has reminded them of policies against getting involved in demonstrations.
Drexel University also isn't telling its students to return to the U.S., said Daniela Ascarelli, director of the university's study abroad program. She said the university has spoken with the three students still in Egypt and all of them feel safe and want to stay.
Indiana University urged its two remaining students in Egypt to return to the U.S. One complied, but the other didn't, telling school officials he felt safe and wanted to finish the semester.
Last January, most schools followed a State Department recommendation to bring the students home as protests first broke out in Egypt.
Alex Hanna, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was in Egypt in February after the unrest began. Hanna did attend protests, saying he was able to fit in because he's of Egyptian descent.
Hanna said American students who want to lend their support to what they see as a Democratic movement can unwittingly play into the government's hands, allowing it to use reports of foreign protesters to argue the dissent is being stirred up by outsiders.
"U.S. students going over there can actually hurt the efforts," he said. "They need to be cognizant of that."
Katrina Gray, 22, of Madison, Wis., was finishing a year of study in Alexandria, Egypt, when she was evacuated in January. Gray was disappointed to miss "a huge part of history" but said she never considered defying the University of Wisconsin's order to come home.
"My mother would have killed me," she said.
Chris Blank contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Mo., Rich Callahan contributed from Indianapolis and Dinesh Ramde contributed from Milwaukee.