April 23, 2009

Cornell Students Mugged While Abroad In Ecuador

Print More

Two Cornell students and a Boston University student were abducted and mugged last week while studying abroad at B.U.’s Quito Language and Liberal Arts program in Ecuador.
The three students, who are now safely back in that country’s capital city of Quito, were robbed at gunpoint last week while on break between classes in Guayaquil, 165 miles outside of Quito, according to Kristen Grace, Cornell Abroad associate director.
The students had decided to take a taxi back to their hotel as a safety precaution at around 11:30 p.m., according to Grace. While the taxi was stopped at a red light, two men jumped into the vehicle, demanding their money and valuables.
The students were then driven to an industrial part of the city, and were left near a factory. The three students alerted factory guards who then called the police.
The police first took the students to the American Consulate, which was closed. They returned to their hotel room before 2 a.m. Cornell Abroad administrators were informed of the incident when the students were on their way back to Quito.
“I spoke with each of the students after their return and they sounded shaken, but fine, and determined to complete their semester in Ecuador, a country they had each come to love,” Grace stated in an e-mail.
The students wished to remain anonymous, Grace stated.
Grace said she spoke with the students’ families and Gannett Health Services to ensure that counseling resources would be made available to the students.
Grace also communicated with Cornell’s Office of Risk Management and Insurance, as well as B.U.’s Program Manager, director of institutional relations and the B.U. Press office.
According to Joe Schwartz, public information officer for the University, even though the students have chosen to remain in Ecuador, the University’s services will still be available after the student returns to Cornell.
Grace explained that Cornell students who return from Guayaquil, which is also a study abroad destination, have mixed reports on the safety of the city. Grace said she had previously made plans to visit the programs in Quito and Guayaquil in June.
Cornell Abroad has previously expressed concerns about student safety in Guayaquil to the program provider there and had been ensured that the program was taking additional precautions, Grace stated.
Julie Settle ’09 was mugged while studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador last Spring.
Settle, studying with IAS Abroad, was living with a host family and taking classes at the local university. On her way home around dusk on a crowded public street, two kids around 20 years old approached her from behind. One walked past her and revealed a gun pointed at her behind his back. The other man put his arm around her firmly and kept walking. They asked for her wallet, phone and camera. As Settle was digging through her backpack, which included a computer, the men became anxious as they approached an intersection with a traffic cop.
“After a series of events, they took my entire backpack with everything in it,” Settle said.
Settle approached the IAS program for help, but never contacted Cornell Abroad, even though she had attended the pre-abroad meeting and had a list of information.
“It honestly didn’t even occur to me to contact Cornell Abroad. I hadn’t had any contact with them since I’d gone,” Settle said.
According to the U.S. Department of State website, non-violent crime, such as robbery, in Ecuador is a very common and serious problem. Violent crime has been on the rise in recent years, even in well-populated areas.
“The Ecuadorian government has increased police patrols in tourist areas, but travelers should remain alert to their surroundings and maintain constant control of personal belongings,” the website states.
Specifically, in Guayaquil, where the students were abducted, the State Department urges visitors to take extra caution in the downtown area at night, at the street markets in La Bahia, at the Christ Statue on Cerro del Carmen, at the airport area and in the southern part of the city. There have been reports of travelers being followed from the airport and then intercepted by robbers with vehicles. In addition, the area has seen armed robberies at restaurants and an increase in kidnappings for ransom.
In order to prepare students going abroad, Cornell offers a mandatory pre-departure meeting for all students, whether they are participating in Cornell programs or through other universities or organizations. Meetings for women are also offered to talk about specific concerns of female students. Cornell Abroad also recommends that students do their research and read the State Department and country-specific information. Links to these websites are posed on the applicant home page.
While abroad, Cornell students are still considered fully registered students and have access to the University’s medical evacuation and travel assistance programs, International SOS. When abroad, students are automatically covered by International SOS, which helps students in a medical or political emergency. The program covers any individual considered to be on Cornell official business and can also provide assistance in case of a robbery or if students have questions about where to seek medical assistance.
“When a student goes abroad, they have the same coverage that President Skorton has,” Grace said.
According to B.U. spokesperson Colin Riley, while these types of criminal acts are rare, B.U. continually re-evaluates the safety of the program.
“We take great pride and care a great deal about the priority and safety of our students that participate in study abroad through BU and we want to continue to make those experiences very positive and safe,” Riley said.
Grace agreed that the programs are generally safe.
“In my conversations, I have learned that while there have been cases of pick-pocketing in previous years, nothing serious has happened to students on the B.U. program in the 20 years that it has been running,” Grace stated.