On August 18, fourth-year Michaela Cross published an article on CNN iReport detailing the experiences with sexual harassment she had while studying abroad with a University program in Pune, India last fall. Those experiences included being the victim of stalking and attempted rape, and resulted in a PTSD diagnosis in the spring. Her article has since received over a million views, and University administrators are faced with responding to the concerns raised by the story. The University has taken steps in the right direction in its reevaluation of the Pune study abroad program, but many of these reactionary measures should exist as the norm, not only in Pune, but also across all University study abroad programs.
“When I went to India, nearly a year ago, I thought I was prepared. I had been to India before; I was a South Asian Studies major; I spoke some Hindi,” Cross wrote in her article. “I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets…but I wasn’t prepared.” The Study Abroad Office has made efforts to address Cross’s concerns with this year’s Pune program participants. In response, administrators have established more intensive cultural sessions: Students are taught not only what kind of attention they will attract and how to dress appropriately, but also how to react to unwanted touching and assault, and what actions to take after such incidents. The information from these expanded training sessions can give students in India a place to turn should harassment occur.
This year, the Study Abroad Office also implemented changes in the Pune program to increase communication about the students’ day-to-day experiences during the program. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Cross said that “there was no forum to discuss these issues that the women were facing on a daily basis.” This year’s Pune program includes weekly informal meetings where students can talk about culture shock and which can serve as the forum Cross felt her experience lacked.
However, these structures should be in place in other study abroad programs. Many comments and articles responding to Cross’s iReport have noted that tourists can face sexual harassment anywhere. And while we do not disregard the problem of sexual harassment that occurs on this campus, the issue here is the particular challenges associated with being a foreigner in a new environment. All students in all countries could benefit from a forum where they can share their experiences and work through the challenges that come with studying abroad. Furthermore, the Study Abroad Office is missing an invaluable opportunity to improve all study abroad programs by soliciting feedback from students while they are actively participating, rather than only after their experiences are over. Immediate feedback would allow for opportunities to improve the program while students are still invested in it.
The Study Abroad Office must not see Cross’s experience in India as simply an isolated incident which can be left behind with some quick fixes. The specific reactionary measures the Office has already taken can be expanded to better the study abroad experiences of all students, and implementing more extensive preparation and feedback structures can benefit all of UChicago’s study abroad programs.
The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.