Hard lessons for study-abroad students

The United States plants nearly 300,000 diplomatic land mines around the world each year and the number is increasing. Officially they are known as SACS: Study abroad college students. Most of them are well-behaved and unlikely to trigger international events or fuel diplomatic firestorms.

They learn a few things about the world, have a good time and come home appreciating America more than when they left. But not all. Surrounded by the right amount of political fatwood or influenced by high levels of Ouzo or bison grass Vodka, some study abroad students detonate. At their local campus bar this might not be as big a deal.

But overseas, in China for example — the fastest growing foreign study destination for Illinois college students — authorities won't care if Johnny is “just a college student” when he pummels some Chinese citizen in a barroom argument. In Africa or the Middle East, government officials will not be impressed that Missy is “rush chair of her sorority” when she is caught with cocaine in her Coach bag.

And this month in Egypt, an Indiana student and two of his classmates at the American University in Cairo were arrested during the latest political protests in the city.

Egyptian authorities charged the young men with throwing flaming fuel canisters and Molotov cocktails from the roof of an American University building onto security forces clashing with protesters.

One of the three, 21-year-old Luke Gates who is an Indiana University junior, wrote on his now-disabled Twitter account that he had been “throwing rocks” at police who were firing rubber bullets and described how his eyes burned from tear gas, according to Associated Press reports.

He wrote on one occasion “honestly, hopefully i (sic) die here,” reports added.

An Egyptian court ordered their release last week after the U.S. Embassy intervened. “I'm not going to take this as a negative experience. It's still a great country,” said Gates told the AP, after getting off a flight in Indianapolis.

Nineteen-year-old Derrik Sweeney said he didn't think they would survive the brief captivity. When Sweeney arrived in his home state of Missouri, he told reporters that police “said if we moved at all, even an inch, they would shoot us. They were behind us with guns.”

As you would expect, Sweeney contends that the students “never did anything to hurt anyone,” were not on the roof and never handled or threw explosives. Whether this is true, they certainly put themselves in a terrible position just by being swept up in the public demonstrations, especially considering that more than 40 protesters have been killed and at least 2,000 wounded.

Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi stated in wire reports, “We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability. None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands.” Tantawi didn't identify the hands, but it is clear that Egyptian police believed six of them were attached to the arms of those American students — among almost 2,000 U.S. college students studying in Egypt.

University overseas study programs all provide students with rules of conduct that they are expected to follow. The University of Illinois' is typical, stating that students should: “Avoid protests and demonstrations, regardless of the protester's agenda or ideology, even if they claim to be peaceful or nonviolent. Small triggers or instigators can easily turn protests and demonstrations violent. Avoid being drawn into political exchanges, debates, protests, or conversations that might become incendiary or overly emotional.

Avoid engaging in heated discussions while under the influence of alcohol.” For many of those who study overseas, it is their first time in a foreign country. Their parents may be more concerned about how the kiddies will do their laundry, eat well and whether they'll have cell service than the possibility of an encounter with the constable, a lengthy prison stay — or worse.

Perhaps there should be more attention to those behavior-related details. This isn't just a concern for students from the United States. As someone who has traveled to many foreign nations during times of conflict, the best advice for all Americans visiting overseas is to make yourself as small and unnoticeable as possible.

But even Derrik Sweeney hasn't figured that out despite what happened. “I would still say going to the protests was a smart decision” he told ABC on Sunday. And his mother hasn't learned much either. “I want my children to live their life and not sit on the sidelines” she said. Next time she wants to send her son to Cairo, might I suggest the one in Illinois.

Ÿ Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at and followed at

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