Study abroad programs entice students abroad with appealing marketing, however reality often bites when the student arrives and the old bait and switch practice befalls them. The FBI publishes a tool to help students avoid victimization. Safety and well-being of students abroad is often touted as the number one priority. Make your program earn your trust.

In 2011, STS Kielimatkat, a Finnish study abroad program was going to carry out the experience of a lifetime for 16 year old Salla Rautiola. They promised to:

  • place her in a region of Canada where French was spoken
  • admit her into a good school
  • carefully select her host family
  • offer her local representation
  • provide proper support services to enrich her studies
  • accommodate her physical and mental well-being, and health

Like any student, Salla was filled with emotions as she prepared for her study abroad journey to Canada. Salla’s parents entrusted STS with their daughter who was two years shy of being an adult. Her well-being, safety and security were their main concern. They did not foresee the problems their daughter was walking into. STS reportedly did not deliver what they had promised.

The family reports STS was unable to place Salla in a French speaking program or host family. In fact, the program was aware of the change and withheld this information from Salla one month prior to her departure. Gisele la Londe-school refused to admit her because there were no arrangements. She had to wait a week to get into school and it was not the school they had originally promised her.

Apparently STS failed to notify Salla about her new accommodations. Instead of a French speaking home, they placed her with a host mom who was far removed from the culture and educational expectations. The woman was of Jamaican descent and only spoke Jamaican creole, no French was spoken in the home.

As indicated in the transcript CSFES Norway published,“2011/2012 STS Experience (Canada)” Salla’s living conditions were in no way accommodating. The condition of the home threatened her health. Living in an unclean house, she became sick from the presence of dust and mold. When Salla went to her local sponsor Sandra Hanniman for support and guidance, she was blamed for being sick and missing school.

Salla’s mistreatment did not stop there. After reporting her poor living conditions, she was temporarily placed in another home where cats and dogs were present. She is allergic to cats and dogs. Shortly after STS found her another host family who wasn’t much better. This family constantly had visitors. One visitor harassed Salla and used her personal computer to look up inappropriate images. Knowing program officials were not going to help her, Salla did not seek guidance and support.

STS Finland country manager, Mira Silvonen, later dismissed Salla from the program and terminated her contract citing health issues. Because of the breach of contract, Salla was to report back home and had lost her opportunity to study abroad and probably financial loss.  

Salla’s experience is extreme, but more common than you want to believe. In 1999, the FTC helped bust some travel companies overpromising and under-delivering. Students are enticed abroad, baited with beautiful photos of homestays and schools and intriguing classes, only to have a negative ‘switch’ on arrival. Always have an attorney protect your well-being before you sign any contract to study abroad. Before you enroll in a study abroad program, do your research and learn as much as possible about that particular program.

If you do end up in Salla’s situation, you do not have to suffer the mistreatment or endure victimization. Here are some things to think about:

  • What is your exit plan if your trip goes wrong?
  • What can you control?
  • Do you have a safe harbor abroad with a trustworthy advocate?
  • If your program leaders refuse to listen or speak to you, or are threatening or coercive,  contact your school counselor or advisor.
    • If that fails, contact your U.S. Embassy consulate or perhaps the FBI if endangered.
    • Your Congressman and Senator may also be able to affect change.
  • Inform your friends and family members about your situation.

If your program shows you their true colors believe them and get out. Better to return home safely than with psychological or physical trauma from abusive situations.

A study abroad trip should be enriching and rewarding. You should never have to feel threatened by program organizers or your host family. Your health should be the main priority. If you are being mistreated speak up and seek help. Do your research and have someone to contact when you are abroad.

Be smart before you depart. Study abroad programs may make many promises, they don’t always deliver.
To help ClearCause advance Safe Journey Academy please donate so every student departs smart with an action plan.