Street Smarts-Study Abroad - Carnegie Mellon University

Street Smarts

While abroad, students must be particularly street savvy. Gender roles, attitudes toward homosexuality, attitudes toward people of color, traffic laws, and drinking laws may not be the same as in the United States. It is the student’s responsibility to be observant and cautious.

Students should register with the State Department when they arrive in the host country. That way, students will be alerted if any large scale emergency occurs and/or if an evacuation is necessary. Students should also periodically check the travel alerts issued by the CDC and the State Department. International Students should check-in with the embassy of their home country to see if a similar process is available.

Observe local behaviors. Many behaviors and cues will be different than in the United States. Body language is not universal, and behaviors may be interpreted differently. Be aware of sending mixed signals, such as smiling while saying “no”.

Remember that there is safety in numbers, so travel in small groups when possible. In any large city, a foreigner holding a huge map could invite trouble, so study the city map before arriving at the destination.

Ask the Right Questions

A new culture brings more than a new language and interesting food. There may be hazards in the host country with which U.S. students are unfamiliar. The host country may have dangerous natural phenomena, animals or plants. Students should research this information before going abroad and know how to appropriately handle such things if encountered.

Know the environmental hazards, common crimes, and traffic laws. Find out the norms governing clothing and behavior and who can be trusted in that country. (Police cannot be trusted everywhere.) Also, it is important to know what documentation, if any, must be carried at all times. Do not carry more than needed, but always carry what is required.

The study abroad program provider and a good guidebook can provide answers to these and other questions.


Take some time to research the traffic laws and typical driving practices in the host country. Second to alcohol, traffic is the most common culprit of accidents while studying abroad. Driving laws vary dramatically, and it is not recommended that students drive while abroad. In many places, pedestrians do not necessarily have the right of way. Even if pedestrians do have the right of way, traffic laws might not be regularly obeyed. Use caution on busy city streets, and do not assume that any car, truck, bus, or scooter will stop to let a pedestrian cross. Do not forget to look in the opposite direction if studying in the U.K., Australia, India and parts of Africa! The Association for Safe International Road Travel provides helpful resources.