Even in tragedy, study abroad has value

This past Friday, as the world witnessed the tragedy in Paris unfold, I couldn’t stop thinking about study abroad.

Those of us living half a world away heard news reports of shootings and explosions occurring in Paris, taking people’s lives in football stadiums and concert halls. The attacks, which ISIS claimed responsibility for, killed at least 129 people and put the city in an unprecedented state of emergency.

When I went to Facebook to read more information, I stumbled upon at least a dozen of my high school and college friends’ statuses updating people about their safety. They were studying in Paris for a semester, and thanks to Facebook re-activating its Safety Check feature, I learned that they were all safe. It was a relief, I know. However, not every study abroad student was safe. A Cal State Long Beach student studying at Strate College of Design in France was killed in the attacks, several Los Angeles news outlets have reported.

Without a doubt, these attacks shine a light on terrorism and political unrest in Europe. But, for those slated to go abroad next semester, these attacks make students grapple with the uncertainty that comes with living with the unfamiliar. These attacks serve as a reminder of the wide spectrum of lessons study abroad teaches students in a way that American classrooms just cannot.

Alex Janin studied abroad in Paris during Spring 2015. When she first heard of the Nov. 13 attacks, she immediately contacted her host family. At first they didn’t respond to her email.

“I just felt nauseous. It was right when everything was starting to unfold,” she said. “I felt sick because I knew the situation might just keep getting worse.”

After sending a Snapchat message to her host sister, who reassured Janin that the family was safe, she said she felt relieved but was glued to the developing coverage. Her awareness of French politics was heightened by her time living in the country.

At USC, the Office of Overseas Studies helps raise the cultural awareness for hundreds of students each year. The office facilitates 55 programs in 30 countries. Janin studied in Paris through the office.

When it comes to study abroad, safety should always be on students’ minds. Anywhere outside of the United States the meaning of being an American will take on new contexts. In January, before I boarded a plane for my study abroad semester in London and 12 days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, I remember my parents having a talk with me about being “safe.”

It wasn’t in the normal tone parents have with kids before dropping them off in college for their freshman year. Instead, it was a talk about how the world outside the confines of the U.S. was a completely different place. The politics are different. Young Americans should understand this, and the best way to do that is through organized travel.

Study abroad also heightens empathy for places far off. The tragedy in Paris is a human tragedy — but for Janin, who lived there, it took on a whole new meaning.

“I could clearly see myself dining at 10 p.m. in any cafe, and my heart hurt for everyone whose normal lives were shattered into chaos,” Janin said. “I would say my perception of the city has changed somewhat.”

Yet, other lessons can abound for those who take the leap of faith to study abroad. For Janin, even six months removed from living in Paris, the experience continues to teach her lessons. In the middle of the chaos, Parisians adopted the policy of opening their homes to fellow Parisians who couldn’t make it to their own houses or those who didn’t want to try.

“While I was abroad, I noticed Parisians often keep to themselves, keep tight knit circles and stay out of people’s business,” she said. “It was wonderful to see the sense of community last night after such a horrific event.”

Study abroad, despite its uncertainty, is worth it. Regardless of the unpredictability, no student should want to trade it.

After reading “Wait An L.A. Minute” on Tuesdays, join Jordyn Holman in her millennial conversations on Twitter

@JordynJournals. She’s a senior studying print and digital journalism.