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GIEU cancels trip after mugging in El Salvador

By Sarah Alsaden, Daily News Editor
Published August 14, 2011

The University's Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates program canceled an internship program based in El Salvador and required students to return to the United States after three students were robbed at gunpoint on July 29 in the city of San Salvador.

Though none of the students were injured, the University required the 14 students and two faculty leaders to leave the country because the criminal activity was suspected to be specifically targeting the local agency the students were working with, according to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

“We’re very concerned about the level of criminal activity in the area and the fact that the robbers actually took their passports, had access to their itinerary and knew where they were going to be,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said the University could not allow students to remain in the country because of the risk presented in continuing the trip and the responsibility the University had for the students’ safety.

“We were very concerned and wanted to make sure that our students were safe at all times, and we felt it was imperative that they return and get out of that unsafe situation,” Fitzgerald said.

He added that though there are no plans to continue the program in El Salvador, students were reimbursed for the shortened trip and granted the opportunity for full academic credit for the trip.

LSA senior Manish Patel, who was part of the team that travelled to El Salvador, wrote in an e-mail interview that the group was upset with the decision to end the trip.

“The decision that was made was unacceptable, irrational, and ignorant on behalf of the University,” Patel wrote.

He added that after the University ultimately suspended the trip, members of the team signed waivers releasing the University from liability so they could attempt to continue their stay in El Salvador.

“It was hard to hear that after a small robbery incident, the University would go so far as to suspend our trip,” Patel wrote. “Our team, devoted to solidarity and intercultural experience, decided to continue without University permission and affiliation after suspension of the trip.”

As part of their effort to convince the University to let them stay in El Salvador, Patel wrote they had their itineraries approved by the U.S. Embassy and found two officers from the tourism police to escort the students throughout the rest of the trip. Despite their added safety precautions, the University maintained the students should return to the United States.

In addition to mandating the students to return, Patel wrote the University stated they would not be allowed to enroll for fall term if they did not come back to the United States.

He added he believes University officials did not take into account students' opinions in making the decision for them to return.

“We were forced to come home without a voice which we found to be disrespectful,” he wrote. “At this point, they took away our voice and our choice.”

However, Fitzgerald said there was communication between the two leaders and students who were part of the team in El Salvador and University officials, and regardless of the students’ desire to stay, the University strives to ensure safety of its students at all times.

“The leadership in El Salvador was well aware of the student’s concerns and feelings — I know there were some pretty strong feelings that they wanted to stay in El Salvador,” Fitzgerald said. “The safety of our students is our number one priority and more fully assessing the situation in El Salvador again, LSA leadership felt very strongly that we need to bring these students home.”

Despite the liability waivers and further efforts to remain in the country, Fitzgerald said the students were still on a University trip and therefore the University would still be liable if anything were to happen.

“Essentially, they are there on University-sponsored travel and the University is responsible for the safety of those students,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just not practical to say we’ll just wash our hands of these students and let them stay in El Salvador on their own ... University leadership and the LSA leadership assessing the situation and the incident that happened felt strongly it was in the best interest of those students for the safety of those students to return to the U.S.”

Patel said that while the trip was cut short, he still had a transformative experience and gained valuable experience despite his frustrations with the University.

“The people of El Salvador are genuine, kind-hearted, and would go the end of the earth to accommodate us,” Patel wrote. “I met some amazing people and heard some amazing things from them that will always be with me. I had an amazing time for the one week I was there, but feel ashamed that the University did such a thing.”