Five students robbed at gunpoint in Costa Rica

by Andie Diemer

Sept. 5, 2008

After just a few days exploring their new home in Costa Rica, five Elon students spending a semester in the country were faced with the harsh reality of being targeted as tourists on Aug. 30 when they were held at gunpoint and robbed by three local men.

None of the students was harmed, but among the items lost in the incident were backpacks, cameras, iPods, wallets, money and credit cards. None of them was carrying travel documents at the time.

Laurence Basirico, dean of International Programs, said the students had just returned from a portion of their orientation at Poas in La Paz before a bus dropped five of the seven Elon students studying abroad there off at the grocery store. This is where their shopping is usually done.

They then decided to walk back to their homestays and said they felt comfortable doing so, since they were in a group and it was a nice neighborhood, Basirico said.

It was then that the men confronted the group.

“They were as close to shock as you could be at that point,” he said.

Immediately, measures were taken by Elon to lend students money before more could be wired to them, cancel credit cards and arrange for individual conversations with an Elon counselor. The students then spent the night with Elon Philosophy Professor Anthony Weston and his family in his apartment, Basirico said.

Basirico contacted Dean of Students Smith Jackson and also spent time having “lengthy conversations” with each student’s parents.

Some were wondering if they would be able to transfer into classes back at Elon if they chose to return to campus.

“I didn’t try to talk anyone into staying,” Basirico said. “I talked about things to get them to be more secure so they could feel more confident. I said we would do as much as we possibly could and I think they were happy about that and that Elon was supporting them and that they had an option.”

None of the parents requested that their children return home. Their responses ranged from wishing their kid wouldn’t come home and see this as a valuable experience to respecting the kid’s decision to return or not.

“This was a really unfortunate event,” he said. “We didn’t try to trivialize or minimize it at all, but unfortunately this would is a scary place and this can happen anywhere. It happed at Elon a week before.”

The week buffer that students were given to make a decision about returning home has passed and Basirico has not heard any of them express leaving.

“I think its admirable and I’m very happy they’re staying because I think the program is fantastic,” he said. “In some ways it was a really important thing to have happen because it will make them aware of and sensitive of the world and make them be able to be responsible for their behavior.”

While Basirico acknowledges the students did not do anything wrong, he said foreigners aren’t normally interested in harming their targets but in intimidating them. If they don’t have the right items, they’re usually off to the next tourist victim.

With about 15 students registered to study abroad in Costa Rica in the spring and another 54 ready to take off for Winter Term, Basirico said plans remain intact to continue to send students. After 19 years of the program running and more than 700 students later, Basirico said having only four past travelers being mugged was a solid track record. But it’s one that the administration is not taking lightly.

Before any students study abroad they are made very aware of the risks involved, he said. Every precaution is taken to ensure their safety and students will never travel if they are going to an unsafe area or a State Department Travel warning is posted. Last Winter Term a trip to Sri Lanka was canceled due to a warning.

“We try to minimize all the possibility, but the risk is real,” he said. “We’re completely upfront with the students when they prepared for this program. We hide nothing. We want them to know because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable and we think it’s best for them to know beforehand what they’re getting into.”

Though safety is his top concern, Basirico said the administration would be canceling programs left and right if student safety had to be guaranteed.

“We still encourage people to study abroad,” he said. “We think it’s a valuable experience. We can’t ensure anybodies safety, but we’ll take as many steps as possible to minimize anything bad happening. But unfortunately they happen around the world and at home as well.”

He said because the students are often surrounded by other Elon students they feel like they are at campus and let their guard down. But he hopes that every student studying abroad will take a lesson from this incident.

“These students really worked hard to overcome this fear that they had and that is just such an important aspect of their growth,” Basirico said. “Study abroad is not about being held up, but it’s certainly about personal growth. We just want it to cur in other ways.”

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