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My Kid's Studying Abroad and I'm Not Sure What to Think

Silhouetted woman waves through airport window at plane
Silhouetted woman waves through airport window at plane

For the past year and a half, my oldest child has been studying at a university in Amsterdam. He's majoring in physics and -- if all goes according to plan -- he should be earning his bachelor's degree in 2017. He comes home summers and over Christmas and I visit him there at least twice a year. So far, so good. But on the heels of this morning's news of terrorist attacks in Belgium, he said something that rocked me to my core: "It seems as though the bombings are getting closer."

Only last November, terrorist attacks in Paris -- 316 miles from Amsterdam -- killed 129 people. One of those killed was a 23-year-old California State Long Beach student, Nohemi Gonzalez, who had gone to Paris for a semester of study at the Strate School of Design. Not only did her death horrify her classmates, but it also made many parents of study-abroad students wonder whether kids should still be taking college classes overseas.

Now it's Brussels -- 108 miles from Amsterdam -- that's under attack, with at least 34 people killed and many more injured today in blasts at the airport and a subway station. Only a few days ago, the suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks was arrested.

Upon hearing of the attack, I immediately messaged my son in Amsterdam on Facebook. Although he's alarmed -- and has commented that the attacks are indeed too close for comfort -- he's not going anywhere. He'll continue living his life and attending classes this week, just as he has been. He noted his certainty that his professors will discuss the issue today with students, just as they did in the days following the Paris attacks.

But this latest incident has given me pause, and when friends ask me what I think about whether American students should continue studying abroad, I'm no longer sure exactly what to tell them.

My husband and I raised our three kids in London, and lived there for seven years before moving to the States in 2000. I've long been a proponent of kids studying abroad, and even wrote an article a few months back about the advantages of getting a degree overseas. At the time, I asserted that the advantages to earning a degree abroad are many, but one of the main ones is the money saved by students and families. Many programs in Europe offer bachelor's degrees after only three years, and often at a fraction of the price charged by U.S. institutions.

Currently, more than 46,500 U.S. students are pursuing degrees overseas, roughly 84 percent of whom are enrolled in bachelor's or master's degree programs, according to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education. The United Kingdom is the most popular destination, followed by Canada, France and Germany.

But on this particular day, as a parent of an undergrad studying in Holland, I'm not sure I can recommend going abroad with the same unabashed enthusiasm I might have only yesterday. Ever since the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert last year, I'm sure many other parents have felt the same. I still believe, for so many reasons, that studying overseas is a priceless experience, but I can't deny that I'm unnerved by what's happened.

My gut tells me that we all just need to keep on living our lives -- study abroad students included. Immersing young people in different cultures is -- to me -- the best way to ensure they are prepared to thrive in an increasingly diverse world. I want all three of my kids to know people as people rather than to buy into any prevailing stereotypes. But yes, it's a dangerous world, and the best I can do today is tell my oldest to remain extra vigilant.

When I spoke with Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, last year, I remember him telling me that students from other countries consistently ask him whether it's safe for them to study in the United States. And of course, attacks can happen anywhere -- in Boston, San Bernardino, Chattanooga. The list goes on and on.

Even so, you'll have to forgive me if I hold my breath until the day in June when my oldest steps off the plane in Newark, safely home for the summer.

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