Fiona Mazurenko

The University has different protocols in case any “risk situations” affect students studying abroad. According to the UT International Office public affairs specialist, UT is prepared to deal with emergency situations.
Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

After terrorist group al-Shabaab killed at least 147 people, most of whom were students, in Garissa, Kenya, the UT International Office quickly ensured that there were no students or UT faculty in the region during the attack.

The militant group attacked Garissa University, located near the Kenya–Somalia border, on Thursday

Although there are currently no UT-affiliated study abroad programs in Kenya, the University’s international office has different protocols for a variety of “risk situations” for students studying abroad, according to Fiona Mazurenko, public affairs specialist at the International Office.

“When we heard of the news going on in Kenya, there was immediately checking of databases and everything to make sure we didn’t have anybody on the ground,” Mazurenko said.

The UT International Office is well prepared to deal with emergency situations, Mazurenko said.

“If there was somebody there, we would work with our partners on the ground to find the student — we would reach out to them directly,” Mazurekno said. “We would reach out to the emergency contacts to locate them and make sure that they were safe and had a plan in case they needed one.”

UT has evacuated students from their study abroad programs in the past. The University evacuated students in certain areas of the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as well as students in Japan after the 2011 tsunami that left more than 15,000 dead, according to Gabriela Rios, international risk outreach coordinator at the International Office.

Last year, administrators for Russian Express, a language and culture program, canceled the part of the program that normally takes place in Kiev, Ukraine, after political unrest erupted in the country. The program took students to Irkutsk, Russia, located in Siberia, instead.

Rios said the International Office is prepared to work with any country to make sure student security is not compromised.

“In December, there was that shooting in Australia, and there were students there at the time, so we went through our normal protocol to work with our partners on the ground and to get details about the situation and also to reach out to all the students to make sure they were safe,” Rios said.

Because of the heightened risk traveling in certain areas presents, UT has a restricted regions list for its international programs. Some of these restricted regions include Egypt, Haiti, India, Israel, Russia, Peru and Ecuador. No student, faculty or staff member can be required to travel to a country on the list.

A country’s placement on the restricted regions list can come about as the result of a number of factors, including U.S. Department of State travel warnings and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health rankings.

Emma Hines, environmental science and geography sophomore, has traveled to Ecuador — which is on the restricted list — as a study-abroad student and plans to go back with a UT Maymester group.

She said she feels UT is well prepared to take care of its students and wouldn’t be sending them abroad otherwise.

“When I studied abroad last summer, they made us complete some safety modules online and read a packet of information about general and personal safety,” Hines said “I was nervous last summer before going to Ecuador but never for safety reasons.”

If a student does get caught in the middle of a dangerous situation and has to come home, once they are safe, they will work with the office to determine which of the course credits they were working toward can be granted, Rios said.

“We do everything we can to give the student a smooth transition,” Rios said. “It depends on what type of class they’re in, what type of credit they’re receiving, how deep into the semester they are [and] what kind of course work they’re doing.”

UT ranks second in the nation for the number of students studying abroad, according to a recent report by the Institute of International Education. According to Fiona Mazurenko, a public affairs specialist at the University of Texas’ international office, studying abroad is both rewarding and affordable.
Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

According to the Institute of International Education, UT ranks second in the nation in number of students studying abroad. The University is also in the top 25 for international student enrollment, with more than 6,000 students enrolled.

“We realize the importance of international and hands-on experience in education,” said Fiona Mazurenko, a public affairs specialist at the International Office. “It turns students into global-citizens, and this is important in an increasingly global marketplace.” 

UT sends more than 2,800 students to more than 80 countries each year. The destinations with the highest enrollment include Spain, France, China, Brazil, South Africa and Australia. Program lengths range from three weeks to an entire semester, and many programs offer internships or are linked to existing classes at the University.

According to Mazurenko, students who study abroad enhance their educational experience, cross-cultural communication skills and personal character. 

“Living alone in a foreign country and studying among peers from different nationalities taught me to adapt, be independent and work with diverse groups of people,” said finance senior Yaffa Meeran, who studied in Paris in spring 2013.

Meeran now serves as a peer advisor for the International Office.

“It was cool because you won’t get this opportunity at any other time of your life,” Meeran said. “It was the best decision I made in college.” 

Mazurenko said she advises students not to be apprehensive about studying abroad. 

“Students have the most apprehension over the cost and being alone,” Mazurenko said. “It’s scary, but it’s so rewarding. You learn to trust yourself and be prepared for anything.”

According to Mazurenko, the International Office emphasizes proving flexible and accessible options so that the barriers financial need poses are collapsing. NAFSA: Association of International Educators recently recognized the International Office for its First Abroad Scholarship, which provides first-generation college students the opportunity to study abroad by reducing the overall financial cost. English senior Omar Gamboa received the Gilman Scholarship, which is awarded to undergraduates who otherwise would not be able to study abroad, in 2014 to pay for his summer researching literature in Argentina. 

“The study abroad office was helpful in presenting students with the numerous financial aid options,” Gamboa said. “Though, besides merely presenting them to us, they really encouraged students to follow through with applying for them.”

UT alumnus Manuel Ramirez is the first and only undocumented student with deferred action to study abroad.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Following President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration Thursday, immigrants’ rights advocates say restrictions for eligible undocumented students to study abroad could be eliminated, but UT’s International Office says the program’s requirements will likely remain unchanged.

Starting in 2012, undocumented immigrants with deferred action status, which grants eligible undocumented youth temporary lawful presence, could travel abroad for education, employment or humanitarian purposes, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This opened up the opportunity for UT’s estimated 400 undocumented students to participate in a study abroad program.

The Department of Homeland Security has not announced the details of the executive order, but Deborah Alemu, a UT alumna and member of the immigrants’ right organization University Leadership Initiative, said she expected the department would strike the advanced parole permit needed for undocumented immigrants to travel abroad. 

Striking the advanced parole permit, which costs $445 when including a biometric services fee, could ease the study abroad process for undocumented students. 

“The changes pertaining [to] study abroad are going to be for the better — to make travel easier,” Alemu said. “We’re thinking they’re going to say having deferred action is sufficient and you don’t have to apply for additional permission.”

Over the summer, alumnus Manuel Ramirez became the first and only undocumented student with deferred action to study abroad. When he applied to travel to China, Ramirez said the advanced parole permit application was “stressful” and “took a lot of patience,” requiring him to submit recommendation letters, other documents and information about all of his intended whereabouts in China.

“I was the guinea pig in to how to apply: money, visas, paperwork, what kind of documents are needed,” Ramirez said. 

He said he was most unsure of his probability of successfully making it back into the U.S.

Fiona Mazurenko, a spokeswoman for the University’s International Office, said Obama’s announcement did not clarify which changes would be made for study abroad programs. She said there could be some changes to the deferred action application or advanced parole process, but the study abroad program would most likely remain the same. 

“It is likely not to be affected much, but the presidential executive order did expand DACA to more individuals, and about 290,000 individuals will now be eligible to apply, which could potentially increase the number of DACA students at UT,”
Mazurenko said. 

According to Mazurenko, “several” undocumented students were interested in spring and summer 2015 study abroad programs, and more than 65 students participated in the International Office’s information sessions for deferred action recipients. She said the International Office hopes to increase access to study abroad for underrepresented groups.