Brandon Randall was walking home from a concert in London with fellow study abroad students when he noticed a boat hurrying down the Thames River on June 3. Later that night he found out what the boat had been rushing toward: the scene of the London Bridge attack — just a few bridges down from where Randall’s group had been.
“It could’ve been me,” said Randall, a senior majoring in English. “That next day, I thought about that, but I also just felt blessed. I felt safe, and I knew that in our study abroad group we’d be fine.”
Over the next few days, Randall noticed a greater police presence throughout London, but he said there was not an overwhelming sense of fear. Instead, he said there was a sense of solidarity, and people carried on with their lives — including the study abroad students.
Randall is just one of 795 BYU students who will travel to Europe during spring and summer terms for internships and study abroad programs, according to the International Study Programs Office. The programs will continue as normal despite recent attacks, according to International Study Programs Director Lynn Elliott.
Elliott said BYU tries to be very conservative with its security. If there is a clear threat — if plans for an actual attack are known — BYU will make changes to the international programs. If there is not an immediate threat, though, the programs will continue with consideration.
Every student is briefed before they leave for a study abroad or internship, so they know there is potential danger and how to remain safe. The international security office also sends information to the directors if needed, which the directors can then pass on to their students.
Mark Johnson, a comparative arts and letters professor, was directing the Europe art history/classics study abroad during the Manchester, London Bridge and Paris attacks this spring. He was not in any of the cities during the attacks, but his group did arrive in Paris the day after a man attacked a police officer with a hammer outside Notre Dame. Johnson’s group’s first stop that morning was Notre Dame, but he said the cathedral felt the same as always, just with a few more policemen and soldiers than normal.
“As scary as the attacks appear on TV, they really only affect a tiny portion of the populace in these cities with millions, and life just goes on,” Johnson wrote in an email. “The odds of getting caught up in one of these events are very, very small.”
Johnson said the students in his group feel safe, but safety is and always has been a major concern on BYU international programs. Study abroad and internship directors receive briefings from church security, and the Kennedy Center even has an advisor, Landes Holbrook, dedicated to international security.
Directors also encourage students to be cautious, travel in groups, let the directors know their travel plans and call the directors if necessary. But, Johnson said, after directing over 20 study abroad programs, the main issue he has seen has been with pickpockets but nothing more serious.
Carly Tait, a junior majoring in Russian and history, is currently living in Riga, Latvia, where she is completing an internship at the Riga Museum of Decorative Arts and Design as part of the Baltic States Internship program.
On June 6, her program director, Tony Brown, forwarded the students in her program an email from BYU International Security. In this email, students studying in Western Europe were told not to be surprised if they saw increased security over the summer and to be cautious in crowded areas. Despite the “high potential for continued terrorist activity” in Western Europe, though, the International Security Office wrote “the overall security ratings for these countries remains low” and encouraged directors and students to continue to be vigilant.
“As a reminder, please put into place strong communication protocols with your students such as team leaders and emergency check-in systems,” the email read. “Establish safe havens where students can go to in an emergency and check to make sure all students are accounted for. Please teach and remind your students to limit and even avoid areas that put them at higher risk of terrorism.”
Tait said even though the email focused on Western Europe, students in her program are still cautious. The students must report their location to their director and have any inter-state travel plans approved. The students are supposed to know the address of the closest U.S. embassy and to go to the embassy in case of emergency. The students also enrolled in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program before they left for Europe.
Besides that, Tait said she avoids situations that do not feel right, but overall she said she feels safe and, while she thinks being a smart and cautious traveler is important, she does not want to let fear ruin her time abroad.
“As I was texting my sister the other day she mentioned that she has been praying for our safety as we travel Europe, and I realized then after I thanked her that we cannot live in fear each day,” said Tait. “And we can’t let the existence of fear and the possibility of terror attacks stop us from living. In the end, if we are cautious and aware of our surroundings, we need to live without fear. We have to just do our part and follow the feelings and promptings that come to us and not let fear paralyze us from living our lives.”
Rachel Huntsman, a junior studying ancient Near Eastern studies, agrees with Tait. While on the Ancient Near Eastern Studies in the Museums of Europe study abroad, Huntsman said she has noticed the increased security in cities like London, Paris and Berlin, but overall she said she feels safe. The group has a nightly check-in, keeps cards with the address of their accommodations with them and makes sure everyone is reachable at all times.
After spending a semester at BYU’s Jerusalem Center, Huntsman said she has learned even though scary things happen, life continues and God will keep students safe.
“I’m pretty passionate that we can’t stop traveling and making connections with the world because of terrorism,” said Huntsman. “Traveling inoculates against prejudice, and we (need) to stop these divisions in our world. Traveling helps you humanize people who you might be afraid of. It helps you learn that your way of thinking isn’t necessarily the best. It helps me know that it is important to be a part of an international community and that I cannot only be thinking about myself and the direction that my country is going, but how to connect with the world.”
Huntsman said it is safe and important for students to travel to Europe, and isolated attacks do not define an entire nation or culture.
Johnson explained why he is not overly worried about his or his students’ safety.
“We have always felt the protection of the good Lord watching over our groups,” said Johnson. “In addition to our own prayers, I know there are 30 sets of parents and 60 sets of grandparents and other relatives praying for our safety.”