College addresses FSP safety issues

by Carl Burnett | 5/13/02 5:00am

Alice Gomstyn '03 expected to immerse herself in an unfamiliar culture when she embarked on the geography Foreign Study Program to the Czech Republic this spring. But she didn't expect her room would be broken into and her wallet stolen on separate incidents just a week apart.

The Dartmouth students on the Prague FSP are staying in a dormitory at Charles University, which does not have a history of frequent crime, explained Gomstyn, a member of The Dartmouth staff.

"It was just bad luck on my part," she said.

This year it has become increasingly clear that Dartmouth students on FSPs and Language Study Abroad programs are not immune to such bad luck.

The most dramatic example came Fall term, when the Russian FSP to St. Petersburg was canceled due to security concerns. Students had been scheduled to depart for Helsinki, Finland on Sept. 11, and faculty director Jennifer Tishler was already there planning for their arrival.

When all U.S. flights were grounded following the terrorist attacks, the start of the FSP was delayed. A few days later, it was canceled altogether when several robberies at the FSP students' future dorms were reported.

"It was a combination of the two factors," Tishler said. "It was absolutely the right decision, although students were extremely disappointed."

The College scrambled to find housing for the displaced students. A Russian affinity house was established within the Native American House. Six of the nine students originally bound for St. Petersburg ended up living there for the term, and Tishler taught a course dealing with St. Petersburg instead.

"It's disappointing. It was all really sudden," Ryan van Hoff '04, who was scheduled to go on the aborted FSP, said last fall. Van Hoff said he thought the College did the right thing, though.

"I understand and respect their decision fully," he said.

It was fear of an unsafe living environment that forced the cancellation of the Russian program, but similar fears have not derailed the Prague program since the incidents a few weeks ago.

An intruder entered the room Gomstyn shared with a roommate by climbing up the outside of the building to the second floor, tearing through a screen and opening a window, Gomstyn said. Her suitcase, a Walkman, clothing and a plane ticket were all stolen.

Following the incident, a Charles University professor accompanied Gomstyn and her roommate to the police station to help translate as they filed a report. Then the pair was allowed to move to a room facing the front of the building, where a burglary would be much more difficult.

"When the College chose our housing, based on the information they had, there was no reason to believe it was inappropriate," Gomstyn said. "I don't know how it's possible to make the building we're in much safer than it is."

Geography professor Frank Magilligan, who led the first half of the FSP, said this is the first time in the Prague program's 10-year history that a student room has been broken into.

"People have even lost passports here and had them returned," he said.

Nevertheless, Magilligan and other faculty members took immediate action, moving students to rooms away from the darker, more easily accessible back wall of the building and arranging for a lock on the door of the hallway where Dartmouth students are staying. Only residents of that floor have a key to that door.

Gomstyn said she and her roommate asked that bars be affixed to their windows to prevent future break-ins, but that proved impossible for now because of complications arising from the dormitory's status as a historic building.

A week after the break-in, Gomstyn was at a McDonald's restaurant in Prague, with her parents, who were there visiting her. She turned her back on her purse for a moment. Before she knew what had happened, her wallet and cellular phone were gone.

Such incidents are not uncommon on FSPs, according to Exchange Programs Coordinator Peter Armstrong.

"We do have wallets stolen, purses snatched every term," he said. "We've always warned students to be cautious."

Since Sept. 11, though, the advice the College gives students preparing to travel abroad has changed. Before, the main concerns were avoiding theft and street violence.

Now students are advised to avoid rallies and demonstrations, to speak the native language whenever possible, not to wear any clothing identifying them as Americans and to stay away from American-owned businesses -- anything to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

In March, five Dartmouth students chose to leave the art history FSP in Florence, Italy after the State Department warned that four Italian cities -- including Florence -- were potential terrorist targets on Easter Sunday.

The remaining students used the warning as an opportunity to leave Florence for a few days on an excursion to see other parts of Italy, and the threats never materialized.