Students warned to stay away from protests while abroad

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A survey earlier this month from the nonprofit Institute of International Education found more than 270,000 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2009-10 school year, up about 4 percent from a year earlier. The great majority went to western Europe: Britain, Italy, Spain and France. But the survey found increasing numbers in less traditional destinations; Egypt hosted 1,923 Americans, up 8 percent.

Sweeney, a Georgetown student, and two others were arrested in Egypt last week. (Photo: Egypt Ministry of the Interior)

"A lot of students are trying to find places that will help them understand the emerging world," said Peggy Blumenthal, who oversees research at the institute. They are preparing for careers in public health, the sciences and national security, for example, she said.

Many universities and study abroad program coordinators have been trying to prod students out of what can become a comfort zone of huddling with their fellow Americans. The push to engage can be broadening in a "safe" country; in a country with a suddenly dicey political situation, it can be hazardous.

Blumenthal said universities give students traveling abroad a fairly standard list of do's and don'ts, including blending in with the locals, obeying local laws and customs and staying sober. Students should avoid large crowds, seedy areas and steer clear of political events, she said.

"Really, these are not new, these guidelines, but they are even more vigorously stressed now," she said.

Derrik Sweeney, one of the three Americans arrested Nov. 20, said he had heard just such cautions from the American University and the U.S. State Department. He went to demonstrations anyway — including one in early September and one the Friday before he was arrested.

"I value democracy and liberty, so I wanted to go to those protests more to witness them and to see them than to participate in them," said Sweeney, a student at Georgetown. "I wanted to see history being made."

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