The Big Risks: Studying Abroad as an Assault Survivor

Angela Pupino
March 6, 2017
Blue sky through the windows of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

I had only been in London for a few hours when a strange man hugged me. And sadly that’s not British slang for giving me a million dollars. I was sitting alone at a bus stop when he hit on me. Then, without warning or even much of an exchange of words, he was hugging me.

I found out at orientation the next morning that this is a popular mugging tactic, but the incident set me on edge even before I knew that. I checked numerous times and found that nothing was missing. Nothing at all. But even after I was certain that I was safe back in my flat and had all of my possessions, I couldn’t stop feeling like something had been taken from me.

As a sexual assault survivor, one of the reasons I choose to study abroad in the UK was because of its relative cultural similarities to the US. Before I was assaulted freshman year, I was considering studying abroad in places like Jordan, Morocco, or India. But after, it was unthinkable. My friends who did travel to those places told stories of men following them and advised me to invest in sunglasses and headphones so I could pretend not to notice them. Even though many of these friends loved their abroad experiences, I decided to rule out these destinations altogether. In fact, I decided not to study abroad at all.

But then I found the perfect program for me in London and everything fell into place. The UK’s cultural norms, especially with regard to things like gender roles and what sexual assault entails, are similar to the US in many ways. I go to college in Washington, DC, and am used to living in a large and crowded city, so living in London wouldn’t be new in that regard. Plus, almost everyone speaks English! How much safer could I get?

I was feeling pretty confident about my time here. But then a stranger grabbed me— and probably tried to mug me— within hours of arriving and my confidence was shattered.

After I got away from that man, I lost it. Deeply shaken, I made it back to my room. I was in a brand new country, starting a new adventure, and all sorts of bad feelings were bubbling up. Why had I decided to come to this place? Was it the right city for me? Would I be safe? Would someone do that to me again?

I resolved not to leave my dorm room for the rest of the night, and possibly the whole next day. The city felt too dangerous and uncertain. But then my roommate and her friends arrived and asked me to go to the store with them. Five women travelling to the grocery down the block together seemed like a safe bet to me, so I agreed.

When you fall off a horse, you’re supposed to get right back on.

Since I set foot out the door again on that first afternoon, I have not looked back. I haven’t had any serious issues since— and I know what to look out for and who to call (definitely IES program staff) should something happen again. I’ve made friends and many amazing memories. And although I sometimes get nervous on the streets or when my friends flirt with strangers, I do not regret deciding to study abroad. I’m falling in love with London more each day. The city is historic but modern. It is diverse and multifaceted but still retains a culture all its own. It pulsates around me. I adore it.

If you are a survivor who is nervous about studying abroad, you are not, and have never been, alone. The risks and your fears are real. Both can be managed... although never completely eliminated. But my advice, as a student who was and continues to be in your shoes, is to consider studying abroad anyways.

A lot of study abroad programs talk about the importance of stepping “out of your comfort zone”, but I think few truly comprehend just what that means for a survivor.

Survivors, you already know how to step out of your comfort zone. You already know how to battle uncertainty. You already know what it feels like to face your fears. Many of you do these things every single day.

You know what makes you feel secure, you know what you need to have in order to feel safe, and you understand your personal healing process. Keep these things in mind as you look over possible cities and programs. Gage yourself, your readiness for travel, your mental health, and your comfort zone. Do what is right for you, but please don’t shy away from all risk.

Somewhere out there might just might be a life-changing opportunity for you. Somewhere out there may be a place that pulses around you with new life and energy, a place that revitalizes you, and a place that offers you exactly what you’ve been looking for.

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Angela Pupino

<p>Hi, I&rsquo;m Angela! I&rsquo;m a junior at American University, where I&rsquo;m majoring in International Studies and minoring in Public Health. I enjoy drinking hot chocolate, reading good books, and singing along to *every* song on the Hamilton soundtrack. I grew up in the Rust Belt, live in DC, and can&rsquo;t wait to study healthcare and experience life in London. I&rsquo;m not throwing away my shot!</p>

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