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Istanbul OCS trip cancelled abruptly

The history department’s Spring 2016  Turkey program, “Nations, Islams, and Modernities,” was cancelled on March 18, nine days before students would have departed for Istanbul. Although Turkey’s political climate has been uneasy for several years now, largely due to the war in Syria, it is only recently that the situation has become more serious.

“Unfortunately the security situation in Turkey began to decline the week that I sent out the letters of acceptance last June, or at least that’s my own sense,” explained history professor and program director Adeeb Khalid. “Up until last spring there was nothing on the horizon. It was bubbling over, but no one would have thought it would get to this.”

Khalid explained that aside from the war in Syria, the Turkish government has a strained relationship with the Kurds, Turkey’s largest minority who live mostly in the south and southeast of the country. As Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic State and Syria has complicated, the Kurdish demands for autonomy coupled with the Turkish state’s resistance to them opened up a new fault line between the two parties. A string of unexpected violence  has ensued, according to Khalid. After the March 13 bombing in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, Khalid said Carleton decided to cancel the planned field trip to Ankara, but it wasn’t until March 17 when the State Department added new language to its travel warning advising Americans to be extremely cautious while traveling throughout the entire country, that Khalid and Off Campus Studies director Helena Kaufman realized that the situation had passed an acceptable threshold of risk. After consulting with their partner in Istanbul, Accent International, and Khalid’s friends in Istanbul who were nervous about their own safety, they decided to cancel the program. The day after they cancelled the program, March 19, there was a bombing in Istanbul a few blocks away from the program’s location site.

“I personally would still take that risk for myself and my family. I’d go there tomorrow, but it’s a different set of considerations when you are responsible for students–morally and legally,” said Khalid, “It was basically a question of what level of risk were we happy to cope with. We were not comfortable with taking that risk.”

As Kaufman and Khalid monitored the situation, there were three benchmarks they kept in mind to determine the risk of carrying-out the program.
In any situation, the first thing they look at is whether the program would be healthy and safe for students. State Department Warnings from the United States and equivalents in Britain and Canada are consulted, as well as Center for Disease Control Warnings (CDC). If health and safety concerns are deemed acceptable, the next thing looked at is whether the situation in the country will inhibit the goals of the program.

“Maybe the health and safety concerns are not so dangerous that we couldn’t go there, but if we have to put too many restrictions on students, you really limit your program potential and how you would deliver the academic and experiential portions you planned,” Kaufman said.

In the case of the Turkey program, Carleton’s Istanbul partners wanted to limit students’ use of public transportation, amongst other precautions. Kaufman and Khalid felt that this would have greatly inhibited the program’s ability to provide an enriching academic experience for students.

The last thing that is looked at is what emergency resources are in place. If the program’s insurance says it will not cover the program anymore, Carleton has to absorb all of the costs associated with risk.  However, insurance did not pull out of the Turkey program, so this was not a factor in the decision. This isn’t the first time a non-European program has been cancelled due to the threat of violence in the region. The French department’s Mali program has been indefinitely suspended due to the civil war that has been simmering in the northern part of the country since early 2012. After a series of bombings in the region, the program’s director and French professor Cherif Keita, opted to cancel the program. Over the course of two years, the program’s scope was adjusted to avoid regions deemed dangerous, but in early 2012, “things degenerated, and our program was really on the ground,” Keita reported. A few weeks after students left the country, there was a military coup that caused Keita to “not feel comfortable taking students there.” But Keita confirmed that it was his own decision to call off the program and that he worked closely with the OCS office over the course of the next few years to try and resume the program, but a string of other terrorist attacks in tandem with an Ebola outbreak grounded the program indefinitely. 

“Frankly, if the Turkey program were my program, I wouldn’t go. It seemed like the Turkish state didn’t have control of things. Whereas in the developed world, people probably have a better sense of security,” Keita remarked. “They tell themselves the state has ways of developing and prosecuting, although it’s a false sense of security.”Some students have responded to the Turkey program’s cancellation by pointing to the Paris program’s continued presence despite recent terrorist attacks in Paris in Brussels. However, Keita said he didn’t believe that the decision to call off the program was rooted in racism, but rather in terms of blendability.“In the case of a third world country, you’re taking mostly white kids and traveling as a group. Right there, you’re conspicuous. So if this is a group that’s targeting westerners, you’ll be more exposed. In a European country, you blend in. The odds are smaller,” Keita said.

Still, despite the risks, Keita agreed that Carls themselves are adventurous and eager to take on the world. “Carleton students are intrepid. They want to discover, they feel that the world is there for them, that there shouldn’t be barriers,” Keita said, “which I can understand, as a young person, that’s how you think. But as an institution, you’re thinking about liabilities, as a director you’re thinking of your responsibility to the institution and your responsibility to the parents.”

In general, students slated to go on the Turkey program were disappointed with the cancellation, but understanding of the decision. Chessy Cantrell ’17, a history major, said she trusted Khalid and Kaufman to make the right decision, and she is unsure about whether she would have felt entirely comfortable if the program had occurred.

“I think I would have been fine, but the bigger issue for me was how my mom would feel every day, and I know she would be worrying and checking the news every other minute, and I was feeling guilty for inflicting that burden upon her,” Cantrell said.

Seven of the students on the program were juniors and will not have the opportunity to find another study abroad program because of senior-year obligations. Kaufman explained that she has seen several students about finding alternative OCS programs. Students from the Turkey program will have the opportunity to apply to all Carleton programs for the 2016-2017 year, even if the deadline is passed. Carleton also has good relationships with other programs who are aware of the situation and will approach them on students’ behalves to help make sure they get accepted. “Whatever we can do we are willing to do,” Kaufman said.

Perhaps one of the most stressful parts of the program cancellation was when students had to scramble to register for classes and to find housing. Matthew Elfstrand ’17, a history major, said he did not get into everything that he wanted to take and had planned his junior year under the assumption he would be abroad in the Spring. However,  for the most part, students said that professors were understanding and accommodating of the circumstances.  History Department Chair Bill North explained that the department has been encouraging colleagues to allow people from the program to enroll off of the waitlist, even if they waitlisted late.

Although the OCS Office alerted Residential Life of the possibility of the program’s cancellation a month before it was cancelled, Res Life could not make preparations beyond checking to see if spaces vacated by students going to Turkey were still available and checking to make sure there was enough space available if the program was cancelled, explained Director of Residential Life Andrea Robinson. They also checked to see if any of the vacancies in those rooms had been filled by random placement, as opposed to draw-in, in which case they would have considered moving students to make space for returners. All vacancies had been filled by draw-in, however. Chloe Bash ’17, a history major, feels very lucky about finding a good living situation and getting into desired classes. However, she wishes that taking a term off had been presented as an option for students on the program.

“I think that if there had been an easier way to do so and it had been explicitly offered as one of the possibilities, I would not be on campus this term. It appeared that we were automatically expected to return to campus,” Bash said.

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