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Students head back to Bolivia

After being forced home Oct. 18 by social unrest and a U.S. State Department travel warning, students enrolled in the Duke in the Andes study abroad program will return to Bolivia next Thursday.

This latest twist in a tense saga resulted from Wednesday's lifting of the State Department warning, which had advised Americans with access to transportation to leave Bolivia immediately. University officials felt obliged to order the students to return home while the warning was in place, said Director of Study Abroad Margaret Riley, but as it turned out, the week-long warning was "absolutely unprecedented" for its briefness.

For several students, the uncertainty of the last few weeks has been difficult.

"It's definitely been an emotional rollercoaster for me," program participant Alice Williamson, a junior, wrote in an e-mail. "When I found out the program was canceled and we would have to head home, I was extremely sad and depressed, then angry. I wasn't ready for my semester to be over and I felt like I was being robbed of the second half of one of the greatest experiences of my life."

Riley defended the University's decision to bring the students home and said she would have made the same decision in retrospect. "We have to ultimately look at the safety and security of the students," she said. "The Department of State's travel warning was absolutely unambiguous--Americans should leave the country." She added that she knew of no study abroad program that left students in Bolivia during the travel warning.

Numerous students and their parents, however, criticized the decision to send the students home as premature based on the relative safety of their temporary residence in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Most of the protests and political unrest had taken place in La Paz, the capital city, where Duke in the Andes is based.

In a letter to President Nan Keohane and other officials, program participant Jessica West, also a junior, asked that the group be allowed to attend a university in Santa Cruz for a week, insisting that the U.S. Consulate in Santa Cruz considered their departure "rash." Still, she later acknowledged that the University's decision was probably unavoidable due to the State Department warning.

Williamson, too, wanted a few more days. "The political situation in Bolivia has the tendency to change from day to day, and I think Duke should have been willing to let us wait it out over the weekend, instead of immediately shipping us home," she wrote.

Students in the program will have missed three weeks of classes total, although Riley said missing the first of those weeks will not be detrimental since the university in La Paz was closed. They will make up work through consultation with teachers and make-up classes. Had the travel warning not been lifted, students would have remained at home and finished their program through a distance learning program, Riley said.

The Office of Study Abroad will go forward with the spring Duke in the Andes program, for which 22 students have applied, she added. The political situation in Bolivia stabilized greatly and protests subsided following the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and West wrote in an e-mail that her host family reported "dancing and celebrating" upon the elevation of Carlos Mesa to president.

"Our belief is the protesters are pleased with the sequence of events--that they have ultimately gotten what they were looking for, and that is the resignation of the president," Riley said. "The new president seems to be making great strides."

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