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SAFETI Online Newsletter

Volume 3, Number 1, 2005 Edition

Personal Safety Workshops: Good Opportunity for Study Abroad Students

by Katherine C. FitzSimons

(Editors Note: I’d like to thank the author, Katherine C. FitzSimons (a former staff member of the Center and now a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Ukraine) and Tina Oakland, the Director of the UCLA Center for Women and Men for allowing a Katie to take part in the UCLA Self Defense for Women Workshop, led by Certified Instructors from the Los Angeles Commission for Assaults Against Women. The Center for Global Education has useful resources to help students find a good study abroad program ( and think through health and safety issues and develop an emergency card, emergency action plan, and steps (, but this type of program is a way to help practice techniques and think through what to do to be safe abroad and on-campus in the U.S. Most campuses have a self-defense course available and I would suggest it as an additional preparation program for study abroad as discussed below. G.R.)

If students at U.S. colleges and universities understand how to act in a manner that may help to keep them safer at home, then they may be able to transfer that knowledge so that they maintain safer behaviors as study abroad students. Study abroad administrators should consider suggesting to prospective and accepted study abroad students that they take part in a personal safety workshop, which may be offered by their college or university, local YMCA, or other non-profit group. Even if international travel is not the primary focus of these personal safety workshops, study abroad students may find them beneficial.

Becoming a study abroad student may entail certain safety challenges that students are not accustomed to dealing with at home. Studying and living in an unfamiliar environment may put students at a greater risk because they may have limited language skills and may stand out as an American, a woman, or a minority.

While crime does happen everywhere, there are steps that can be taken to help reduce the risk of becoming a victim abroad. One strategy for enhancing personal safety is to follow some techniques adapted from self-defense, or personal safety, courses. In preparation for my own departure as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I recently participated in a four-hour personal safety workshop offered by the non-profit group LACAAW (The Los Angeles Commission for Assaults Against Women) through the University of California at Los Angeles.

The participants at this workshop were all women, ranging in age and ethnicity, with different, private reasons for wanting to enroll in a personal safety workshop. As some of the participants may have been victims of attacks, their identities and comments will remain confidential. However, two participants did approach me to express what a good idea they thought it would be to include a personal safety workshop as a component of pre-departure orientation for study abroad. One of these participants was a former study abroad student, and one an accepted study abroad student preparing for departure.

Study abroad administrators may want to consider sharing with students the following personal safety tips emphasized by the teacher at the workshop:

Be Aware: “Awareness is the most important word in self-defense,” says Leslie Bockian of Corporate Safety Programs, who has been teaching self-defense for 25 years and is contracted by LACAAW. Students should trust their instincts and get out of a situation if something just doesn’t feel right. Students should also research their study abroad destinations and ask locals about where and where not to go. Look at your surroundings to predict where an attacker may be hiding up ahead.

Look Confident: Even if you’re lost or don’t know where you’re going, at least look like you do. Carry yourself with confidence and never read a map out on the street; always step inside of a business to ask directions or read a map. Even though you may be an interested and excited tourist, walk with a purpose instead of stopping frequently to gaze up at buildings, etc.

Limit Smiling: Smiling at home might show friendliness to strangers, but can be a sign of flirtation abroad. In other cultures, smiling can be seen as an invitation to the opposite sex. It can also be taken as a sign of weakness or superficiality.

Don’t Be Tricked: Sometimes scams are good at fooling travelers because an older woman may act as a decoy. Other times, the thief or attacker may be very well dressed and respectful. No matter what, do not let a stranger into your personal space; a stranger should never be close enough to you to grab you. With that in mind, refrain from reading a map for a stranger who may only be using that tactic to get you closer and detract your attention. Be careful of someone who wants you to stand still (claims, “Don’t move, I lost my contact lens!”) or wants you to look in one place (“Can you show me the bus station on this map?”). Some attackers have even been known to prey upon your willingness to help by fooling you with: “Help! My mother’s having a heart attack!” In that split second when you’re deciding whether to help, always think where you would be if your mother were having a heart attack. Would you be yelling to a stranger on the street, or would you be inside with your mother calling 911?

De-escalate a Situation: As Bockian reminds her students, ”It’s perfectly okay not to be nice all the time if that’s what it takes to keep you safe.” However, you should always be polite when you turn a stranger’s request down when that person has asked you for directions, etc. On the other hand, do not say that you cannot help because you are from out of town or a foreigner, as offering this kind of information can make you seem like a helpless or lost target.

Use Your Voice As a Tool: When you use your voice to call attention to someone’s behavior in public, then you can turn people into witnesses. “Screaming is a scared noise. We do not want to sound scared; we want to sound angry,” Bockian tells her students. Turn around and face any potential threat and use a strong voice to yell, “No!” or “Get away from me!” in whatever language comes to you first. Also, it is better to yell “Fire!” than it is to yell “Help!” because more people will respond to the threat of a fire.

Run: “The next best choice besides prevention is to get yourself out of there. Run!” coaches Bockian. Always run towards the busiest area. Most attackers won’t chase you. Give attackers anything they want except you. Give them things like your purse, wallet, money, etc. that are replaceable but do not get into a car with an attacker. Even if your attacker has a weapon, do not allow yourself to be taken to another location.

Turn and Fight: The last choice you my have is to turn and fight. Never give in; always make it as difficult and unpleasant for the attacker as possible because an attacker only wants an easy, willing target. To gain the time you may need to escape an attacker, you may have to cause some physical injury or pain. Focus on attacking the vulnerable parts of the human body, which are: the eyes, the nose, the throat, the groin, the kneecaps, and the tops of the feet. “The louder you yell, the more powerful your punch becomes,” advises Bockian who says you should keep yelling while fighting off an attacker and teaches her students how to break noses and kneecaps.

Avoid Alcohol and Drugs: “Physical skills are important, but the most helpful part of self- defense is knowing how to stop it before it turns into a fight,” says Bockian. Most women get drunk faster than most men do. At a party, always avoid drinking from a communal punch bowl in case someone has put drugs in it. For the same reasons, do not accept an open can or bottle from someone; open it yourself. Watch the person who makes your drink, or make it yourself. Do not leave your drink unattended while dancing, in the restroom, etc. It’s better to waste an unfinished drink, and open or buy a new one, if it means avoiding a potentially harmful result.

Gadgets Aren’t Necessary: In Bockian’s opinion, gadgets like whistles and pepper spray aren’t always necessary or effective for fighting off an attacker. She reminds her students to look around their environments for potential tools like spray cleaners, bug spray, hairspray, and objects like picture frames, clipboards, and forks that can be used in a pinch as defensive weapons against an attacker.

Although women and minorities are at a higher risk for facing safety challenges at home and abroad, men also become victims of muggings and other assaults at home and while abroad. As a former study abroad student and experienced traveler, I would recommend that all students, male and female, going abroad should enroll in a self-defense or personal safety course. Although, thankfully, I was never the victim of attack abroad, I may very well have been tricked by some of the potential scams attackers use. After participating in the workshop, I have an increased sense of power and confidence and a heightened awareness to potential threats I may not have perceived before.

Study abroad administrators should check to see if the college or university they represent offers self-defense, or if it is already an integral part of pre-departure orientation at their institution. If not, study abroad administrators may want to advise students to contact their local YMCA or safety center for assistance with some of the personal safety strategies discussed in this article.

Katherine C. FitzSimons is a Peace Corps Volunteer in the University English Teaching Program in the Ukraine (Group 29, 2005-7). She received her M.S. TESOL at the University of Southern California (USC) in 2004. Prior to that, she worked for the Center for Global Education and earned her Bachelor's Degree at USC. While an undergraduate student, she studied abroad at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain in 2001.