Campus safety on minds of foreign students

Campus safety on minds of foreign students

In mid-June, welcoming several hundred new University of Illinois students and their parents in Beijing and Shanghai, Julie Misa heard a fair amount of questions like:

— What measures are in place at my daughter's residence hall to prevent just anyone from coming inside?

— My son is planning to live at an apartment complex this year; what can you tell me about safety there?

It's not unusual for safety to come up at the annual in-country orientation sessions for international students, or at any meetings with incoming students and parents, said Misa, executive director of Illinois International.

But this year's sessions took place during the highly publicized search back in Champaign-Urbana for a Chinese scholar, Yingying Zhang, who had gone missing June 9. A former UI graduate student was later charged with her kidnapping and Ms. Zhang is presumed dead. Her body has yet to be found.

"People were quite aware of what was going on at that time with Yingying," Misa said.

Misa and other UI officials say they haven't heard an excessive amount of concern from new students or parents as up to 3,500 international students prepare to check in on campus this week. And there doesn't appear to be any dropoff in the number of students planning to attend the UI from China or other countries this fall.

But given the global attention generated by the case, they're taking extra steps to reassure incoming students and their families and provide additional information about safety on campus.

International students already receive safety information during their orientation, and the UI Police Department typically conducts 20 to 30 safety workshops at the start of the school year for individual departments or groups, said Lt. Joan Fiesta. Undergraduates also get information through the residence halls.

New this year will be:

— Three safety sessions for international students during the first week of classes, on Aug. 29, Aug. 30 and Aug. 31.

— Two self-defense workshops later in the semester.

— A new "frequently asked questions" section for international students on the UI Police safety services web page. It includes topics such as when to call 911 and how to identify a police officer.

"You're in a different country, you're trying to figure out the customs. America's different from what they're used to," said UI Police Lt. Rob Murphy.

'Big news overseas'

The abduction of Ms. Zhang, which gripped Champaign-Urbana for weeks, was a shock to the Chinese community, said Audrey Yuchia Chang, associate director of the UI's Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies.

The case was covered intensely by Chinese media, and state-run news outlets ran stories saying China was much safer than the U.S.

"It's big news overseas that definitely left an impression," including on several Chinese scholars planning to visit the UI this school year, Chang said. "They're very wary of safety. That was definitely a factor in their consideration."

But none of the scholars she knows decided against coming to the UI, she said.

"I think people do realize that it's a standalone case, that the community overall is a very safe place to be," said Chang, a native of Taiwan who lived in Chicago before moving to Champaign-Urbana last year. "We try to get that message across to the newcomers and the ones who have yet to arrive."

The UI International Student and Scholar Services office expected to get a lot of safety inquiries from incoming students and parents overseas, said Director Martin McFarlane. But so far, he's gotten just one email from a student who decided not to come to the United States because of safety fears.

Aside from that, "We haven't heard from anybody overly worried," he said.

The email reinforced the discussion seen on social media in China, "which is not that the University of Illinois is unsafe or Urbana-Champaign is unsafe," but whether it's safe to study in the United States generally, McFarlane said.

'I will be more cautious'

Vivien Li, a visiting scholar from China, thinks the UI's new workshops for international students will be important. New students arriving from overseas would find it difficult to find that help on their own, she said.

Li arrived on campus in February, studying family law and domestic violence prevention at the UI College of Law. She found the community to be "a very peaceful place, very quiet, and very safe." She felt comfortable walking around town, even at night.

When she first heard of Ms. Zhang's disappearance, she assumed the missing scholar was at a friend's house and had lost her phone. But as time went on, she and others in her group of visiting scholars became much more anxious.

She never considered leaving the UI, and would gladly come back if she were offered a spot in graduate school.

But her habits have changed. She doesn't go out at night. She's hesitant about talking to strangers. She also attended a safety workshop by UI Police at a local church.

"I will be more cautious now," said Li, who also has two children.

Concerns back home

The disappearance of Ms. Zhang, and the arrest of her alleged abductor, former UI graduate student Brendt Christensen, also generated headlines in the Chicago area and across the United States.

Raneem Shamseldin, the new UI student body president, followed the case closely from her home near Rockford, where she has a summer internship. She said she's always vigilant about safety, as a woman on campus, but this case "made me very worried." Her mom is also on edge, after two recent abductions in Rockford.

"She just asks where I am a lot more, or suggests that I come home earlier than I plan to," Shamseldin said.

She said Ms. Zhang was a scholar "who came here to do research and better our university. This is a very smart, educated woman. It's very hard to wrap your mind around. You hear situations like this, but it's never happened so close to home. We expect everyone to come here and feel safe and their parents expect them to be safe."

Parents asked about the case during orientation sessions this summer, when new students visit campus to register for classes. But overall safety didn't seem to be a bigger issue than in past years, "which kind of surprised me because I figured it might be," said Murphy, who leads safety presentations at summer orientation.

He always makes sure to flip through the newspaper before each one, as "parents seem to really be up on current events in Champaign-Urbana." Many new students have already signed up for email safety alerts from the UI, and they're also forwarded to parents through the Office of Parent Programs.

"If we've had a shooting close to campus, they're going to bring questions about that," he said.

In fact a campus shooting last fall generated more inquiries from parents, UI officials said.

Murphy always points out that the No. 1 crime on campus is theft. He also encourages them to call Parent Programs or UI Police if they can't reach their son or daughter or have other concerns.

"There's no reason to sit at home worried to death," he said. "We want them to feel comfortable sending their kids here. We do have a great campus. It's safe."

Murphy said he took more calls over the summer from people with tips or offering to help than from worried parents.

"This case really struck people. The community came together on this one," said Murphy, who went door-to-door with other officers canvassing neighborhoods. "Everybody wanted to help."

Taxis and ride services

One common question police get from the international community is about the safety of taxis and ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. Ms. Zhang was kidnapped while waiting for a bus on campus and a security video showed her getting into a car driven by her alleged abductor, though a ride-sharing service wasn't involved.

Murphy was asked to speak to about 50 people in late June at the Wesley Foundation, which serves a large Asian population. Many people asked, "How do we know it's a taxicab? How do we know it's an Uber?"

The UI's safety webpage says both are "very safe," though accepting a ride with someone you've never met always carries "a small amount of risk." Murphy reminds people that licensed taxicabs are marked, and that ride-sharing services often send customers a license plate number or photo of the driver for added safety. Riders should confirm the identity of the driver, and decline the ride or even call police if they don't feel safe, the UI said.

Shamseldin has talked with her executive board and student leaders at other Big Ten schools about safety improvements to prevent future abductions. One idea: expanding the SafeRides program, a limited evening bus service offered by the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. Some students complain that the hours or pickup locations are too limited.

In China, parents' questions focused on what services are available on campus to keep students safe, Misa said.

UI representatives provided information on SafeRides and SafeWalks, a student-run program that provides escorts for UI students, faculty and staff, as well as other resources.

Misa said parents seemed reassured that the campus is generally safe, and that "we were all very deeply concerned about what was going on with Yingying," she said. "It really seemed to me that people were able to put this into context."

The on-campus safety sessions will cover some of the same material, as well as scams that target international students and how to interact with police in the United States, which may be different from what students know back home, Fiesta said.

In some countries police are more militaristic, so there's a natural suspicion, she said, or "sometimes it's OK to offer a police officer money. Please don't do that here," she said.

International students also worry that coming forward with information about a crime — say, domestic violence — might somehow hurt their student visa status, Fiesta said.

The message she wants to get across is that police are there to help: "If you find yourself the victim of a crime, we really want you to partner with us and come forward."

"It is a safe campus, but as in any open environment such as our's people have responsibilities, and we're willing to partner with them in teaching them how to deal with that responsibility," she said.

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Lostinspace wrote on August 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm

What is the latest on the search for the Chinese scholar?  What form did it take?  Is it ongoing?  Haven't read anything lately.