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Safety School: Portugal Study Abroad Trip Offers New Perspective

Criminal Justice Students Examine Different Approaches to Terrorism

Students pose in front of Bom Jesus do Monte, a religious sanctuary overlooking Braga.
Students visit Bom Jesus do Monte, a religious sanctuary overlooking Braga, Portugal, during their study abroad course, Terrorism and Security Studies.

By Ed Brennen

One week after arriving in Portugal this summer for lecturer Neil Shortland’s “Terrorism and Security Studies” study abroad course, Michael Grimmer and 14 of his fellow criminal justice majors started getting news alerts on their phones: A terrorist attack at the Istanbul airport in Turkey had killed 45 people and wounded hundreds more.

While the attack was all over the news back home, Grimmer was struck by how slowly word of the event spread among students at the University of Minho in Braga, the UMass Lowell partner institution where the study abroad program was hosted.

“We were hanging out with a lot of the local students and we found out about it a lot faster than they did,” says Grimmer, a rising senior from Reading. “It wasn’t really talked about. We would discuss it with them and they’d go Google it. It was kind of like how we were in America prior to 9/11.”

Indeed, the detached reaction to the attack, and to other recent attacks across Europe, was a key takeaway for many of the students participating in the three-week course run by UMass Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS).

“The mood about global terror threats was very relaxed in Portugal,” says Christopher Calendra, a rising senior from Long Island, N.Y. “In other parts of Europe, they view it differently and see it as more of a threat. The Portuguese people see Portugal as a safe haven.”

And for good reason. According to the 2016 Global Peace Index, Portugal ranks as the fifth-safest country in the world (Iceland is first while the United States is 103rd).

Immersed in that setting, students were able develop an understanding of the differences between European and American approaches to terrorism and counterterrorism. The three-credit course combined classroom learning, guest speakers and applied experiences such as a tour of a local prison and a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon, where students received a briefing from U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Robert Sherman. In February, Sherman visited UMass Lowell and gave a lecture on U.S.-Portugal relations at University Crossing. 

Most of the students also participated in a concurrent three-credit internship program that gave them experience collecting, coding and analyzing data on terrorist offenders.

Shortland, who led the trip for the first time, says it was an ideal way for students to examine the roots of terrorism and current research trends through an entirely new lens.

“It’s nice to break out of the U.S.-centric way of thinking and to learn from other countries,” says Shortland, the CTSS program manager. “For me, studying abroad is such a unique environment. It is more intense and there’s far more independence. Students were able to reflect on the differences between Portuguese and American culture and think about how they can learn from this.”

Participation in UMass Lowell’s faculty-led study abroad programs has increased for the past five years. According to Fern MacKinnon, director of the Office of Study Abroad and International Experiences, 78 students participated in faculty-led programs this summer, while another 33 traveled with a partner program. For the 2015-16 academic year, 109 students participated in faculty-led programs. 

For students, experiencing the Portuguese culture was a universal highlight of the trip. On their second night in Braga they attended the Festa de São João (the Festival of St. John the Baptist), a celebration of food and music where thousands of revelers tap each other on the head with small, plastic toy hammers that make a squeaking sound.

Students enjoy a dinner out in Portugal
Students in lecturer Neil Shortland's study abroad course enjoy a group dinner out in Portugal.

“Every time someone would do it to me, I wanted to thank them for involving me in their traditions and being so nice,” says rising senior Victoria Beauchesne. “It was an eye-opening, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’m so excited I had the opportunity to enjoy.”

Other highlights included a hike to the top of Bom Jesus do Monte, a religious sanctuary overlooking Braga, and a home-cooked dinner with a local family.

The study abroad experience probably changed Grimmer more than anyone. 

“I fell in love with the place,” says Grimmer, who before the trip was unsure what he wanted to do following graduation. He had planned on a career in the National Guard but was recently medically discharged. Now he’s making plans to pursue his master’s degree — with a semester abroad back in Portugal. 

“This gave me a direction of where I want to go,” says Grimmer, who hopes to one day work in Portugal for the Department of Defense. “I can’t wait to go back.”