Julie Crane was blown away by the magnificent views at Machu Picchu. She appreciated the hospitality of her Peruvian host family. She enjoyed escaping the Michigan winter and discovering the beaches of Lima. Despite an unexpected addition to her itinerary, she said she would do it again in a heartbeat.[peru1]
“I’m an adventurous person,” said the mechanical engineering sophomore who was encouraged by her roommate to study abroad through The Land of the Incas program in Peru this past winter break. “I don’t really think about it, I just go.”
However, when Crane realized her passport was missing only a day before the group’s scheduled departure from Peru, she realized she wasn’t going anywhere soon. After a delayed return to the United States, one drawn-out debate over who was to blame and unwanted attention from the media, Crane said she hopes her experience will encourage future students to take caution while traveling.
On her last Thursday in Lima, Crane remembers dumping the contents of her purse onto the bed of her hotel room before she left to explore the city. She returned later that night only to notice her passport was gone. She told Marcelo Siles, one of the professors leading the study abroad program, and kept looking until Friday, when the group was ready to return to Michigan.
“I just kept thinking, ‘God, this is awful,’” Crane said. “Either the maid had stolen it, or it flew out the window. At that point I was crying and a little livid.”
Unable to find her passport or retrieve a replacement until Monday when the American Embassy office reopened, Crane stayed in Peru while the rest of the group flew back to the United States Friday evening. She was able to stay with a Texan man she and her friends met during their trip until Saturday, when horticulture professor Irvin Widders arranged for her to stay with a local MSU alumni family. The family helped her renew her passport Monday morning before she caught a plane back to Michigan at 2 a.m. Tuesday. Looking back, Crane said she now realizes the mishap could have been prevented.[cow1]
“It was my fault my passport got stolen,” Crane said. “I had never had a passport before, and it was naïve that I left it on my bed.”
Director of Study Abroad Kathleen Fairfax has been at MSU since 2001 and said losing a passport is quite typical for travelers in general. While Crane’s incident received a great deal of attention because of confusion at the time of departure, Fairfax said there was nothing particularly unusual about the occurrence except the interest from the media.
“There’s really nothing that sticks out about this incident,” Fairfax said. “I think the case turned out fine – she made it home safe. These kinds of things are hot for a week or two then blow over.”
Fairfax said the typical protocol of the Office of Study Abroad (OSA) has been set up to be notified if something goes wrong with students traveling with the programs. She also mentioned a 24-hour emergency number that is given out at pre-departure meetings for students in need of help while abroad.
The Peru program, created by the Director of Study Abroad and International Programs and Audiology and Speech Sciences professor Paul Roberts, has taken place for two years now. Roberts said students have lost items including wallets, passports and cameras in the past, but it has never caused major problems. However, he added, before they leave, they now plan to stress even further that students check their belongings before going anywhere.
“You can take anything that happens and make an issue out of it,” Roberts said. “You can’t prevent all problems when you send 2,500 students out. All you can say is minimize, not prevent, problems.”
“The important thing to remember in any program is that all students are adults,” Fairfax said. “They have the means to make decisions for themselves. When a student is over 18, we ultimately can’t force anybody to do anything.”
Siles, who was in his second year of conducting the program, led 20 students throughout Peru and parts of Bolivia, where the group’s experiences ranged from hotel stays in Lima to home stays with host families in Cusco to a one-night stay with natives on the Island of Amantani. He said, since the group moved from place to place, there were bound to be unexpected problems.[man1]
Mentioning a recent phone call he received from a father who wanted to be assured nothing would happen to his son who is planning to study abroad, Siles said he could never guarantee anything.
“You talk about us taking adults,” Siles said. “Being an adult means having responsibilities and those basic responsibilities mean taking care of your stuff. But people always understand that mistakes can happen.”
Crane said she now wishes the professors would have taken everyone’s passports and put them in a safe place rather than keeping it for herself. Understanding she is an adult, she said she still feels faculty leaders should take more responsibility for their students.
“I’m an adult by law, but I don’t have the experience of a 40-year-old,” Crane said. “I’ve never been in this position before. Now if I were put in this situation again, I’d know what to do.”
Zoology and fisheries and wildlife junior Jamie Morrison also traveled to Peru with the program. She said she remembered professors constantly telling the group at pre-departure meetings and their classroom in Cusco to guard their belongings or keep them in drawers.
“In a host family’s house, you can leave your things out,” Morrison said. “It’s different when you transition to a hotel where you have to guard your things.”
Morrison said, although the unfortunate incident seemed to damage the program’s reputation, she thought the trip did, in fact, run smoothly. Describing how much she learned and how much fun she had, Morrison said the professors seemed really excited about the program, especially fisheries and wildlife professor Dr. Thomas Coon, who has studied fish in Lake Titicaca.
“I don’t really like talking about fisheries and wildlife,” Morrison said, “but to see him excited made me excited.”
Crane also said the trip was enjoyable overall, commenting on the beautiful scenery and delicious food. “I would probably still go back,” Crane said. “I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like that ever again.”
Crane also partly blames OSA for not acting more quickly during her extended stay and said she realized it could happen to anyone. “I went into the program thinking that I’m with a school that has the largest study abroad program in the world,” Crane said. “I had no fears, I thought I was safe and it ended up not being the case. I was stunned that this had happened.”
[julie3]“ Despite a conflict in stories, leading Crane to hire a lawyer to deal with the incident, she said she doesn’t plan to sue. “Everybody’s going to point fingers, but these things weren’t happening because of just one person,” Crane said.
Morrison, who suggested ways for study abroad to improve, said faculty leaders could be more active in letting participants know they will be treated as adults and the professors are not their babysitters. She added students should always have an emergency fund in case of an accident.
“For people who have never traveled before, they might not understand,” Morrison said. “They don’t know the country’s foreign culture, and they don’t know the stereotypical views in a foreign country no matter how much you tell them to be careful. Even if you’re on vacation, you still have to have your head in the game.”
Offering advice for future travelers who might encounter similar problems, Crane said it is important to stay level-headed in all circumstances. “Everybody handles things differently,” Crane said. “If you freak out, you’re going to make the whole situation much worse.”
“If something doesn’t feel right or safe, students need to let someone know,” Fairfax added. “Maybe now [students] will realize that this kind of thing can happen to them, too.”
While the incident was under investigation until recently, OSA and faculty members are now under a gag order by Michigan’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents them from discussing Crane’s incident further.
“I’m not asking for a soapbox to say everything,” Fairfax said. “The student’s home safe and we go on from there.”
Regardless of the problems that came with their experience in Peru, Siles said he has been able to discover what positive lessons have been gained rather than forgotten. “I don’t think we’re going to put this in the past,” Siles said. “I learn from every situation, so I can always improve. Now we can ask a few hours before to check for passports and minimize all risks.”
I think good has come out of it,” Crane agreed, “because I learn from my mistakes, and I know to be more careful in the future. I’m still looking forward to traveling again. The difference is that it’s only made me stronger. Plus, it makes a great story.”
“You’ve got to look out for yourself,” she warned future travelers. “Don’t make stupid decisions like I did. Your passport is your ticket out of the country. If you don’t have it, you’re going to be staying a while.”

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