BY CADY KUZMICH
CLIFTON PARK — In early November, Shenendehowa junior Lea Sciancalepore had finally convinced her parents to let her go to France with the school’s Peace Program.
Two weeks later, on Friday the 13th, the attacks in Paris changed everything. Local schools have since canceled several international trips in response to the recent Worldwide Travel Alert issued by the U.S. State Department.
Citing recent attacks in France, Mali, Denmark, Turkey, Nigeria and the recent bombing of a Russian plane in Egypt, the State Department has determined the “likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq.”
Until the State Department lifts the travel ban, which is expected to be re-evaluated Feb. 24, “all foreign travel by student groups shall be postponed” according to a Nov. 25 post on the Shenendehowa Central School District’s Facebook page.
Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson explained the ban’s impact on the school district: “We had four trips impacted by the cancellation, all in February: France (39 students), Italy (38 students), Costa Rica (30 students) and Ecuador (30 students).”
Sciancalepore discussed the Peace Program she hoped to take part in this year, saying “We do an exchange program every year with French kids who live in a town called Montrouge, just outside of Paris. This is my second time being a part of the program. My French student came for two weeks this fall prior to the attacks.”
As she considered entering the program for a second time, Lea was unsure whether she wanted to travel to France again since she had already been on an exchange trip two years before. Spending time with the French exchange students helped make up her mind. “The French students this year were awesome and so much fun, I decided that I simply had to go,” she says. “We all became very close friends.”
With hopes to pursue a career in international business, specifically in the fashion industry, France would have been an ideal place for a young woman like Sciancalepore to explore. She says she’s passionate about languages, traveling, fashion, dance and photography. The travel ban issued by the State Department has not made Sciancalepore hesitant to explore the far corners of the globe on her own; she plans to travel to Italy with her family in April.
Many of her friends planned to go on the trip, says Sciancalepore. “We were all pretty excited about going and I think it was literally only two weeks before the attacks that I had convinced my parents to let me go to France. Naturally, I was pretty upset about the attacks when I heard about them because I had just decided to go to France and I knew that the trip was probably going to be canceled. However, when I first heard about the Paris attacks, all I could really think about were my French friends and if they were OK.”
Although initially rattled by the violence, fearing the worst, Lea says no one from the program was hurt. “Ultimately, everyone I know that is connected with this program in France was okay. The only “personal” connection that we really had was that the cousin of my friend’s French exchange student was actually at the concert where the attackers were shooting freely and he was shot. Thankfully, he’s going to be OK. We felt horrible because it was such a traumatic experience for all of them.”
Sciancalepore says most of the students who planned to travel with the school to France were understanding, though students who had planned to go on other trips were “less understanding.”
“I have two close friends who were supposed to go to Costa Rica this February and they were pretty upset about not being able to go since obviously there is no terrorist activity in Costa Rica,” she said. “I know many other students on the other trips were pretty upset, too.”
“Some of the money [students paid] is nonrefundable which made cancellations more difficult,” she explained. “Everyone who was supposed to go on a trip in February is losing some money. I’m lucky because the people going on the France trip are only losing about $200 of their deposit. At the time of the cancellation I had deposited just over half of the $2,200 for the trip. Other trips weren’t so fortunate.”
While Shenendehowa Central School District spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani recognizes students will be disappointed by the decision, she says “making sure they are safe is what’s most important right now.”
The State Department encourages anyone traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.