by Pia K. Hansen
The United States has traditionally hosted a large number of exchange students from all over the world, as well as sent students abroad to study everything from agriculture to history. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 -- attacks that victimized the world's system of travel along with people -- some programs are having an increasingly difficult time finding students who are interested in going abroad, and some of the exchange students who were already here quickly left for home -- at least temporarily.
Student Ambassadors -- a Spokane-based exchange program -- sends young people in grades six through 12 overseas on educational trips, primarily in June and July. Previously very successful for many years, the program has seen a marked decrease in student ambassadors over the past year.
"Our numbers will be down significantly," says Jeff Thomas, president and CEO of the Spokane-based People to People Student Ambassador Program. "It's been a horrible year for us. We had to lay off one-third of our workforce. It's too early to tell exactly by how much we'll be down, but it's been a hard year."
Thomas expects the usual parental worries about the safety of their traveling children to reach new extremes.
"People have always been concerned about the safety of our student ambassadors. Some are concerned about the planes falling down or the safety of the students once they reach their destinations," says Thomas.
Certain regions in the world are more worrisome to parents than others. "We find that the programs we have in Europe are being hit harder compared to other destinations," says Thomas. "Programs in China, it seems, have not been hit nearly as hard."
Thomas is not sure why that is, and quickly mentions that it's not only exchange students who suffer from a sudden fear of flying.
"I guess international travel in general is way down," says Thomas. "Our organization is pretty narrowly defined, since we deal with younger students traveling in the summer, and that's pretty much it. It's not spread out throughout different age groups or throughout the year. That's probably one of the reasons we have been hit so hard."
Still, Thomas says the trips -- to places in Europe, Russia and China -- are safe.
"Safety is always the first priority with our students," says Thomas. "We are working with an international specialist group on some of the safety issues overseas, and we may make some changes."
The traveling groups of students are well supervised, but Thomas says his organization may begin to provide even more training for its teachers:
"One teacher travels with every 10 students," he says. "But we'll still be providing some extra training for teachers overseas addressing safety issues."
International student exchange programs that work with older students, on a college or high school level, report about the same interest as before the terrorist attacks.
"We have gotten some calls, but if anything I think we have seen an increase in interest in studying abroad," says Christine Sobolak, with Rotary International's youth exchange program. "We had one or two Americans abroad who have been returned home, but that's about it."
She doesn't expect Rotary's exchange student numbers to drop.
"We are working with older students, and I'd say that right after Sept. 11, the parents were more concerned, both parents from abroad and parents from here who have students abroad," says Sobolak. "But since then, it's been much the same."
Some of the exchange students who were already in the U.S. on Sept. 11 chose to go back to their home countries soon after the attacks. It's always difficult being separated from one's family, but perhaps more so when a war is about to break out.
Some students from Middle Eastern countries also worried about whether they would be safe in the U.S. Locally, several Middle Eastern students left Washington State University in Pullman (where they traditionally attend agricultural programs) immediately after the attacks. Most left because their parents asked them to come home.
Students from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) usually make up the largest segment of foreign students at Eastern Washington University (EWU).
"We had a large number of students from the United Arab Emirates that graduated last year," says Stephanie Petit, spokeswoman for EWU. "But the embassy has not been sending us that many students this academic year."
The number of international students at EWU is down by 60 students to a total of 218, with only 20 of those being from Middle Eastern countries. Last fall, there were 69 students from that region at the same time, but the United States' war on terrorism can't be blamed for the total decline. Another reason is that the UAE stopped supporting America-bound exchange students who attend American community colleges and then transfer to four-year schools later in their academic career.
"That change certainly impacts us, as we usually have a number of UAE students transfer to us from community college," says William Ponder, associate vice president for enrollment services at EWU. "The decline we and other universities are experiencing certainly reflects the current situation in the world."
Regardless of what happens in Afghanistan, authorities maintain that very few racist incidents have been reported in this area. This holds true for campuses as well.
"We haven't had any reports of racist remarks on campus," says Pettit. "But some students have said they just want to wait and see how the fall goes before they decide if they are going to continue with their classes next year."
She adds that in her experience, most of the students who left the country immediately after the terrorist attacks did so on the urging of their parents. Leaving is not an easy choice, because students worry if they will be able to re-enter the country with the intense scrutiny Middle Eastern people and especially students on temporary visas are now under. One of the alleged Sept. 11 terrorists was staying in the country on an expired student visa, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services has been under a lot of pressure lately to better account for students once they enter the United States.
EWU is doing what it can to make re-entry easier for students who chose to go home even for a short while.
"We are providing them with some documentation, saying that 'yes, they have a visa' and 'yes, it is valid,' for those who request it," says Pettit.
EWU continues to send students overseas, as do the other area colleges. And not all colleges have seen a drop in international students. At Whitworth College, for example, numbers are about the same.
"We have not seen a drop in international students," says Judy Lang, director of the English language programs at Whitworth. "Specifically, no students have left and no one whose application was pending has dropped out."
As for the foreign students who were already on campus, Lang says they've reacted to the terror attacks much like the American students.
"All of the international students here have been full of compassion. I have not seen fear, but I've seen a lot of compassion for Americans," she explains. "I wasn't sure about that, I thought maybe they would be fearful, but so far that hasn't been the case."
Lang works with a group of foreign students scheduled to go back home at the end of January, but several have already come to her and told her they are ready to stay a lot longer.
And the college continues to send students overseas. Right after the attacks, Whitworth officials contacted everyone and encouraged the students abroad to stay in close contact with their parents.
"We sent out all this information right after Sept. 11 -- I think it helped the students to get to their parents," says Lang. "You know, 'no news is good news' is not true for a mom, so we told them to call home as often as they could. Your family needs to hear from you now, more than ever, so go buy a phone card and call your mom."