The weekend of Nov. 13, 2015, many of the 26 Stanford undergraduates studying abroad in Paris were scattered across various other parts of Europe when they got the news: Something bad was happening in Paris.
Kelsey Schroeder ’17 was in London with a group of fellow Stanford students. During dinner at a restaurant, Schroeder’s friend — the only one whose SIM card worked in England — started getting notifications on his phone. The group immediately headed back to the hostel where they were staying and logged onto the Internet, sending messages to concerned family and friends to let them know they were safe.
But no one really knew what was happening in Paris. At first, news outlets weren’t reporting terrorist attacks, but things got more and more concerning.
“Of course it was strange, but it wasn’t that strange because you always see news of people getting shot,” said Melisa Tokmak ’17, who was visiting Germany at the time. “But in a very short time, it became 30 people dead, and then the number kept increasing.”
As students in the Stanford in Paris program started frantically messaging each other, the Paris program staff sent a short email asking them to confirm they were safe.
According to Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) director Ramón Saldívar and BOSP Paris program director Estelle Halevi, everyone in the Paris program was accounted for within two hours of the attacks, which all occurred within roughly half an hour of each other. Staff from other BOSP programs in Europe also made sure their students, some of whom had been visiting Paris that weekend, were safe.
“It was reassuring that the [emergency] procedures worked,” Saldívar said.
By the end of the night, over 120 people were dead in Paris as a result of the attacks, including almost 90 concert-goers gunned down by terrorists at the Bataclan theater.
Rachel Hutton ’17 was in a small village in southern France visiting friends at the time of the attacks. But for her, the attacks hit close to home — literally. Her homestay was only about four blocks from the Bataclan, and she realized she had walked by the theater the night before the attacks.
“I mean, it was along my running route,” Hutton said. “That area was my home in Paris and where I spent the majority of my time. I kind of feel that if I’d been in Paris that weekend, it would have been really traumatic.”
It was eerie coming back to find the city on lockdown and seeing streets and her Métro line closed, Hutton said. The military presence in Paris increased, and in the days following the attacks, suspects were being rounded up, and no one knew if there would be another incident.
But for Hutton, as for all the students in the program, life went on. In fact, things went back to a semblance of normal much more quickly than one might have expected, Hutton, Schroeder and Tokmak all said. The streets and cafés filled up again quickly.
The French refused to be scared, according to Tokmak. And it was hard to be scared when no one around seemed afraid.
“My host family was totally unfazed,” Schroeder said.
Even one of Schroeder’s professors, whom Schroeder said came to class in tears after losing a close friend in the Bataclan shooting, stressed positivity: What had happened was a terrible thing, he told the students, but also an opportunity to reflect on what they wanted out of life.
“It’s not like [Parisians] forgot about the attacks, but they definitely were like, ‘Life goes on,’” Hutton said. “Their attitudes were definitely in honor of the victims, not blasé.”
Hutton was given the option of being reassigned to another homestay but declined.
The program staff told students they would excuse absences from class the week after the attacks, and Tokmak said the staff were always available to talk. She herself spoke with Halevi about the attacks and said that made her feel better.
Saldívar, in consultation with senior BOSP staff and Stanford administrators, made the decision to allow students in the Paris program to leave early and finish the quarter at home.
Four students ultimately took that option, including Schroeder, who knew her parents were very worried about her and reasoned that she would only miss about 10 days of the program if she left around Thanksgiving. She was able to easily finish her work at home and attended some of her classes via Skype.
“I had had an awesome experience in Europe, and it just seemed like at that point it was worth it to just come home,” Schroeder said.
At Stanford, students planning to spend winter quarter in Paris were informed that the program would continue and that BOSP would reconsider that decision if anything occurred in the meantime.
Saldívar emphasized that students’ safety while abroad is always a priority for BOSP, and emergency protocols are in place for each program should anything happen — be it a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
In orientation, students are informed of emergency meeting points, he said, and given contact information for staff they can reach 24/7. BOSP also contracts with international organizations that could help extract students from study-abroad locations if necessary.
A few students reconsidered their plans to go to Paris this quarter in light of the attacks, but Halevi said the events did not affect the Paris program’s enrollment.
“We know there was some attrition, but reasons for withdrawing from the program were complex and personal,” Halevi said. “Actually, due to the success of the campaign to encourage STEM students to attend the Paris program, our numbers are higher than last year.”
Marija Petkovic ’18, who was registered for the Paris program and had already signed a housing termination contract, decided to withdraw from the program when she read about the state of emergency declared in France.
“A lot of people I know are going because they’re like, ‘Oh, this is going to be an exciting time to be in France.’ I’m coming at this as someone whose parents pulled her out of a civil-war-torn country,” said Petkovic, whose family is from Serbia. “Even though France is very far from being a war-torn country, I don’t feel like going there willingly.”
Due to the circumstances, Petkovic didn’t have to pay the normal cancellation penalty when she withdrew from the Paris program, and she ended up being able to keep her current housing.
Sojourner Ahébée ’18, who is studying in Paris this quarter, had a different response to the attacks. She was worried for the city of Paris, other students and friends when she heard the news of the attacks but never considered withdrawing from the BOSP program, she said.
A course she took in the fall (on the aesthetics of dissent in Iran) gave her “a language to talk about the kind of violence that took place in Paris,” she said. And the attacks have pushed her to think about France’s historical colonialism, as well as the idea of terrorism being a response to the West.
Ahébée praised BOSP’s “calm, professional” management of the situation — she received information explaining what France’s state of emergency would look like, she said, and students were given the option of switching into another study-abroad program if they preferred. But she chose to stick with Paris.
Now, in the city, Ahébée said her bags are searched when she enters major buildings, and people are more alert and perhaps a little “uneasy,” but they’re continuing with their lives, she said — the restaurants are full, and stores are busy.
“After much thought, and a conversation with my family, I was convinced that this was actually one of the safest times to visit Paris,” Ahébée wrote in an email to The Daily, noting that security in the city is at an all-time high. “I also thought this was a particularly important moment in world history, a moment I didn’t want to look away from.”
Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’ stanford.edu.